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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > The Silent Vote

The Silent Vote

Vicky Mulema (MAP17) explores theories of Horizontal and Vertical Citizenship and Kujitegemea and the decline of Kenyan youth registering as voters in democratic elections.
Photo by Javardh on Unsplash
Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Wajinga nyinyi (You fools)
By King Kaka aka Rabbit (with English subtitles)

‘5 years ndio zinaisha naskia umeanza kurudi kwa ground
(5 years are complete, I hear you're back to the grassroots)

Wacha kupretend and all Kenyans know kwa ground vitu ni…
(Stop pretending, all Kenyans know how things really are)


Sijui ka unakumbuka mimi ndio nilikuweka hapo
(I don't know if you remember that I (a Kenyan voter) put you in that office)

Can’t see you nikaa tunacheza tapo
(Can't see you it's like hide and seek)


Ama na assume ni vile ulibuy simu uko na line mpya
(Or should I assume you bought a new phone)

Na haushikangi numbers haujui
(so you don't pick up numbers you don't know)

I stopped being your friend unanitreat namna ya adui’
(I stopped being your friend because you treat me like an enemy)

The Silent Vote

King Kaka represents the voice of millions of disenfranchised young Kenyan men and women. Over the last few years, young Kenyans they have expressed absolute disdain for a flawed political system whose players ignore citizens’ needs and rights until the next election cycle. The Independent Electoral and boundaries Commission (IEBC) began an ambitious campaign to ensure that youth (the largest demographic of citizens with ¾ of the population being under 35) register as voters. However, they were shocked when only 40% of the registered voters were youth, a decline of 5.17% from the previous 2017 election. But why? The narrative suggests that the government has failed to provide employment for young people and involve them in their projects. This statement is true. However, wouldn’t more youth turn up to vote if they truly believed that a certain politician was under delivering on youth promises which another would deliver?

The ’kujitegemea’ mentality

Kujitegemea is a Swahili term used in Kenya meaning self-dependence or self-reliance. Over the years kujitegemea has become a term that is synonymous with many citizens who have accepted the reality that they can’t depend on the government to create an environment that would afford them access to public goods such as decent housing, water, food, electricity, healthcare, education among other pressing needs. Still, sustainable and equitable access to these resources is dependent on government action, therefore citizens look to alternate ways to access these basic resources. The Kujitegemea mentality propagates the idea that the citizenry can only rely on itself, and by extension its social links, to survive as an individual or community because no government is coming to save you.

Horizontal and Vertical Citizenship and Kujitegemea

Horizontal and vertical citizenship have been theorised by Alison Mathie as a way to help us understand how society functions.

Vertical citizenship: Active citizenship through engagement with the state and claiming democratic rights, e.g., through voting.
Horizontal citizenship: Active citizenship through community engagement, e.g., through volunteering.

Kujitegemea is a system of living that falls under the horizontal dimension of citizenship where citizenship is expressed in the loci of community engagement; rather than the vertical dimension of citizenship where citizenship is expressed through state engagement by claiming democratic rights. This horizontal approach of citizenship has been expressed in two ways:

  1. Community mobilization
    Communal relationships are important in many cultures in Kenya. In fact, from before the formation of the republic, the word Harambee meaning ‘all pull together’ was used as a rallying call in communities to mobilise individuals  together towards heavy work. The term now is used to mobilise communities towards achieving a financial goal for weddings, burials, education, healthcare, and other social services that may need urgent attention. Harambee has also evolved into avenues called ‘chamas’, self-help financial table banking groups that pool together investments and funds for personal and communal development. Potentash claims that there are over 500,000 chamas in Kenya managing KSH 400 billion in assets. All these chamas are unregulated by government and uncontrolled by the banking sector. Aside from monetary help, other social groups such as NGO’s, CBO’s and religious groups offer various services to communities through extracurricular activities, skills training, poverty alleviation programs and other forms of rights sponsorship. This idea of self-relying or self-helping communities has allowed individuals to rely on each other rather than depend on governments to ensure functioning societies and individual needs are met.

    But is it possible that horizontal citizenship can work in the negative? I argue that yes, whilst citizenship is about civic duty, horizontal citizenship is also about the promotion of mutual interests even when illegalities are involved. The means can be negative, but the end justifies the means. This is where cartel government comes in.
  2.  The rise of cartel government
    Cartel government, mafias, or organised crime networks, whatever we choose to call them - fulfil the duty that Kenyan governments have refused to organize and deliver for the populace. Ohashi describes cartels in Kenya as ‘group(s) of actors who collude to manipulate a market, supply chain, public procurement process, etc. to gain illicit profits’. Cartels have become a secondary government, especially in informal and rural settlements. Business people, gang members and politicians are in cahoots to ensure that the micro-economics of whole villages are dependent on them as they deliver public goods illegally. Whilst studies have indicated that the government loses billions in revenue to cartel systems, citizens who live in areas that are inaccessible to government goods benefit from cartel business. Even though they are financially exploited by cartels and receive the public goods illegally, it is better than receiving nothing at all. Due to the majority youth population in Kenya, many beneficiaries of cartel businesses are young people as end users, and employees who govern the availability and accessibility of basic services and access to information and opportunities, especially in informal settlements.

Alternatives to a vertical citizenship

"They lie, they give empty promises, they only appear when they are seeking for votes."

Naomi Wanjiku Kibe, 22 years old, Kenya

When a political system that should ensure the economic and social security of its citizens doesn’t work, alternatives will be found. In this case, the alternative is community. Community, even with its volatility and power complexities, provides a safety net - especially helpful for the most vulnerable. What we are hearing is that young people refuse to vote because they believe the elected government have failed to provide employment and access to basic needs. What we are not hearing, or investigating, is the horizontal community alternatives that young people have found to help them survive in tough economic times - which help to deter them from wasting their time and energy going to the ballot to vote again. Individuals in communities are continuing to pull together but also relying on each other to keep going whether by legally mobilizing through Harambees, or illegally engaging and embracing cartel governments. These expressions of horizontal citizenship seem to be yielding more fruit than a vertical citizenship would ever do for the average Kenyan.

Vertical citizenship involves the demand for democratic rights by citizens which can be demonstrated through an election vote. During the Kenyan elections in August 2022, many young people refused to engage vertically through their vote. I call this a silent vote. The silent vote by the youth is a shout to the political system saying, ‘Tutajitegemea na hatutawapigia kura’ translated ‘we are self-relying and will not vote for you.’

Do you hear us?

This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Autumn Term. 

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