NAIROBI, Kenya — Grassroots activist and self-proclaimed artist Guiere Lumumba, 24, loiters outside a community center in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s most notorious slums.
Sharply-dressed, he chats excitedly with a group of young men from different tribes about the change they hope to see come out of Kenya’s 2017 general election. The building behind them is covered in stickers bearing optimistic messages: “I am a peace ambassador,” one reads.
The men are part of Mathare Empire, a community organization focused on spreading a message of peace in a country with a history of tribal-based violence and corruption during elections.
“I never think about tribe,” Lumumba proclaims. “If I’m going to vote for you it’s going to be because I believe in your policies. It’s going to be because you helped me. It’s going to be because you kept your promise before…. I’m not just going to vote for anyone.”
Before Tuesday’s general election, there were hopes that young people like Lumumba would represent a new type of Kenyan voter, using issues, instead of tribal affiliation, to make decisions at the ballot.
“I think we’re moving to issue-based politics,” said Boniface Mwangi, 34, a journalist-turned-politician vying for a seat as a member of parliament in the election. “In the coming years it will all be about issues.”
But as the election results streamed in, the optimism began to fade. Mwangi, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform focused on issues affecting youth, lost by a large margin and conceded. Accusations of corruption and hacking marred an otherwise peaceful election day.
Presidential candidate Raila Odinga claimed “massive fraud” as returns showed him losing to incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta. International observers have said the election was credible. For a time, it seemed his allegation could touch off widespread violence, but police quelled small riots in pockets of the country. 180,000 police and security forces armed with rifles, water cannons and tear gas were responsible for keeping peace in the East African nation.
The level of concern was high because Kenya’s election process has a legacy of violence and corruption. In 2013, Odinga contested the election results in court after losing to President Kenyatta, but his claims were overturned. In 2007 and 2008, post-election violence broke out between rival tribes after Odinga lost to Mwai Kibaki, leaving over 1,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced.
Nearly 10 years later, this violence is still seared into the memory of Kenyan voters with Odinga vying for the highest office once more against the incumbent Kenyatta. Tensions were high across the country in the days leading up to the Tuesday election. Empty streets and grocery store shelves indicated palpable fear in the voting public.
Young people like Lumumba claimed that the post-election violence of 2007 is in Kenya’s past.
“I don’t think I have anything to worry about. 2007 was ten years ago,” he said confidently. “And although we’re still affected, although it was serious and a lot of people died, I think we don’t need to have that kind of paranoia.”
Many of these young Kenyans cite issues of unemployment, security and education as some of the most important factors in their decision-making. Although hard numbers are not yet available, independent election observers say that the youth voter turnout was high compared to previous elections.
“We have a big challenge of youth unemployment. It is a time bomb,”said Owora Richard Othieno, a three-time election observer from the East Africa Community delegation. “Now the youth now are looking at ways of how to take the mantle, how to take the leadership because they have to decide on the future of their country. So they have come out this time to vote.”
The youth now are looking at ways of how to take the mantle, how to take the leadership because they have to decide on the future of their country.
But experts warn against overestimating the power of the youth vote to overhaul the status quo of tribalism entrenched in Kenyan politics.
“Ethnicity and identity matter more than generation,” said Dr. Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
“Younger voters will say that they are not voting along identity lines,” Cheeseman said. “But when it comes down to it you can see that there is an element of identity in how they’re voting.”
This discrepancy was clear when talking to Emma, 33, a mother of three and domestic worker living in Mathare slum. After expressing her concerns about employment and opportunity for her children, she voiced a need for change.
“This time we need a leader who will make the government hear our cries and help us and our children,” she said.
But then, Emma confirmed that she would be voting once more for President Kenyatta, who is also from the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.
Kenyatta holds a strong lead with the large majority of votes counted. Meanwhile Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, has yet to concede.
The Kenyan election results are not final. This article will be updated as new information becomes available.