News 2008


Danger of politicians misusing the youth

Written by George Ogola

February 11, 2008: A video clip uploaded on YouTube by a Kenyan blogger features politicians dancing to DNA’s hit single Banjuka.

Seen within the context of the current conflict, it provides ironic entertainment. The laughter it generates is sardonic because of the vulgarity of its subtext.

Youths scamper for safety during a protest over the disputed presidential results. For politicians, the youth are akin to counterfeit goods - cheap and convenient. Well, now we are beginning to realise how cheap can be expensive.

photo by: Joseph Mathenge

The dancing is so bad it is a grotesque spectacle that can elicit nothing else but mirth. Indeed, the thousands who watch cheekily applaud.

But the laughing masses do not applaud in praise, rather it is at the fact they have turned waheshimiwa into zombies.

As I watched the video, I was equally reminded of Gidi-Gidi Maji-Maji’s popular song Unbwogable in 2002 and of politicians singing themselves hoarse at public rallies.

As popular cultural forms, these songs easily resonate with the masses. But what seems lost in the process of their appropriation by the political class are the very conditions that make these young musicians sing them in the first place.

Unbwogable was more direct in its message. The two musicians wondered why “a young Luo man could not make money any more”. But the “Luo man” here was merely an idiom representing a forgotten social category - the youth.

The song was a deliberate transgression of official narratives of statecraft with the subtext contesting a state-constructed nationalist project where all theoretically had the freedom to fulfil their ambitions. It spoke directly to broken dreams of young men.

In DNA’s Banjuka, he sings: “naweka shida chini, natupa mikono juu…. Ba ba Banjuka tu.” It is not accidental that the idiom of shida, its synonyms and derivatives, are to be found in the majority of Kenyan urban popular music. From Juacali to Nameless, these young musicians all seem to express some aggravation. Even those who appear to sing about love merely use it to express far deeper grievances.

Politicians, unaware of the subtext or deliberately ignorant of what informs the popularity of these songs hence their ability to construct the youth as publics across gender, ethnicity and class, instead appropriate these songs for the express purpose of furthering their political agenda.

For them, the youth are akin to counterfeit goods, cheap and convenient. Well, now we are beginning to realise how cheap can be expensive.

What began as a disagreement about last year’s presidential results has assumed a new dimension. It is now a conflict with many faces, not least a revolt by the youth. Armed with arrows and machetes, they are now Kenya’s daily nightmare with the conflict gaining a momentum so vicious it seems uncontrollable.

A UN report published just over a year ago on youth and violent conflict may have been a case study indicative mainly of events in West Africa. I have read it and would advise any self-respecting politician to read it.

About 18 per cent of the world’s population, which translates to over one billion people, are categorised by the UN as comprising the youth. According to the report, 85 per cent of this population is to be found in developing countries.

This segment also has the most number of unemployed, it is critically under represented in various institutions and attempt to integrate it into the mainstream social, economic or political life has always been at best tentative.

It is a picture that typifies Kenya and to have expected no reaction from such exclusion is to happily engage in fancy and believe that Banjuka or Unbwogable are merely escapist songs.

It would be to argue that there is nothing fundamentally wrong when many young Kenyans understand Friday as Furahi Day.

It would be folly to believe that names such as Nameless or Juacali are indicative of nothing but mere spurts of creativity.

Indeed, such fancy would let us see a video of song featuring Che Guevarra as nothing more than eye candy.

The UN report quotes Robert Kaplan, a man who has a frightening apocalyptic vision of the end of times.

Mr Kaplan argues that the combination of population explosion of the youth, attended by unemployment and scarcity of resources and indeed their exclusion from mainstream society, is an incendiary mix whose logical end would be an explosion.

Kenyan Musician, Nameless

Such explosion has already been witnessed in many parts of West Africa in the recent past and according to Mr Kaplan, it is a “sign of their retreat from modernity into a Hobbesian state of nature”.

Another author, Paul Richardson, also quoted in the report argues that the systematic exclusion of the youth from various national processes through factors such as neo-patrimonial networks leads to their violent reaction.

In light of what Kenya is experiencing, these arguments are not extreme. One may then ask, what way forward?

The UN report provides some useful suggestions, but clearly these have to factor in specific national contexts.

However, the report suggests that foremost is the need to unpack the very notion of the youth as a homogenous category.

Often, the term collapses various differences such as class, gender, even ethnicity. Once that core term is misunderstood, to engage with the problems facing the group becomes futile.

Does Kenya’s government or the political class in general really understand what is meant by this social category - the youth?

We need to make the youth a national priority. They form a critical mass in Kenya that we can only ignore at our own peril.

For the political class, the youth must not be seen as clients on hire, relevant only when political interests are at stake. Paying out millions to a few musicians does little to a whole generation. Indeed, it is they who are unbwogable, not politicians.

Meanwhile, before a politician breaks sweat at a public gathering for the cameras, they need to think about what they are dancing to. Perhaps they need to be reminded of Mikhail Bhaktin’s very insightful words about laughter.

Mr Bakhtin tells us that laughter allows authority, to be “drawn into a zone of crude contact… fingered familiarly, turned upside down, inside out and peered at from above and below… dismembered”. To me that is what the Banjuka video clip on YouTube is about.