In mid-May 2021, five High Court Kenyan judges blocked the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a government-supported plan to make fundamental changes to the country’s constitution, declaring it “irregular, illegal, and unconstitutional”. The decision undeniably represented a massive blow to the government of Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta. It was also the latest dramatic twist in the BBI saga, which has seen the controversial initiative become the topic of heated debate in Kenya since its formal launch in November 2020.
The immediate origins of BBI can be traced back to Kenya’s 2017 presidential elections. Following Kenyatta’s contested victory at the polls that year, which was initially overruled by Kenya’s Supreme Court due to supposed irregularities, Kenya’s fourth president and his main electoral rival, Raila Odinga, reached a “handshake” agreement in 2018, which deeply alienated many of Odinga’s supporters.
BBI, which represented an extension of the political truce reached between Kenyatta and Odinga, was framed as the panacea for “peace, security and unity” in the aftermath of 2017’s political tensions. Its main proponents claimed that the plan would improve the inclusivity of the country’s democracy, by dramatically reforming Kenya’s winner-takes-all electoral system. The proposed reforms, which include, among other things, a commitment to creating a new prime ministerial post and at least 70 new electoral constituencies, have been derided by critics, who claim that BBI is little more than an “elite pact”, designed to expand the power and reach of the Kenyan executive and to consolidate Kenyatta’s “imperial presidency”.
Even before the High Court’s ruling in May, however, the widespread unpopularity of the proposed constitutional amendment was particularly pronounced among Kenya’s younger generation, some of whom viewed the initiative as yet another example of their marginalized, neglected position within national politics. This perception, captured in a February 2021 national poll that found that only 30% of Kenyan youth favoured the bill, offers another reminder of the general disenchantment of Kenya’s younger generation with the country’s political elite and status quo.
Excluding Kenyan youth
The exclusion of Kenyan youth from meaningful consultation in national politics, of which BBI represents just the latest example, is nothing new. Its manifest realities in the Kenyan context – from unemployment, violence, surveillance and political disenfranchisement across gendered and geographical nuances – has deep historical roots and is a theme we take up in a recently published Special Issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies entitled “Youth, the Kenyan state and a politics of contestation”.
The collection, which examines Kenyan youth as a diverse and heterogenous social category, contains articles that focus on the political activism and experiences of Kenyan university and secondary students, urban youth navigating grassroots electoral politics, the structural violence of the poor on the margins of Nairobi, and ethnic Somali youth confronted with multiple manifestations of state repression and surveillance, such as counter-terrorist measures, forced resettlement, and movement restrictions, both historically in Northwest Province (NEP) and more recently in Eastleigh in Nairobi.
Taken together, the issue offers three main arguments about the relationship between youth and the state in Kenya. First, we contend that while the social category of youth needs to be understood as heterogenous, Kenyan youth across class, gender, ethnic, and regional lines have been subjected to a similar experience of state violence and surveillance, which warrants analysing their political activities and experiences through a comparative lens.
Second, in adopting a comparative, historical approach to the study of Kenyan youth, our collection rejects the theory of youth bulge, which represents the social category of youth as an inevitable security threat, at both local and international levels. We argue that such securitization narratives instead depict violence on the part of African youth as almost predestined, and thus serve to disregard or delegitimize the specific nature of these youths’ political commitments and grievances.
Finally, our collection recognizes that Kenyan youth, in attempting to avoid the censure of an infantilizing postcolonial state, have often evacuated formal spaces of political action and sought participation in novel and, at times, unexpected informal spaces. As such, a comprehensive analysis of youth politics in Kenya and beyond requires both the rejection of dichotomous narratives that neatly pit youth resistance against cooptation and the expansion of “the parameters of the political”, taking youth political expression and activity, be it in the form of traditional activism, or hip-hop lyrics, or Twitter posts, as important discursive and material sites of critical investigation.
Youth opposition to the BBI
Viewing youth politics through this analytical prism in the Kenyan context allows us to better understand the rejection of the BBI initiative among different constituencies of the country’s younger generation. Indeed, it is important to note that the widespread scepticism of BBI appears to have united Kenyan youth across regional, class, gender, and ethnic lines. This is evidenced by the fact that a variety of youth organizations, ranging from across the political spectrum, almost immediately offered their own critical appraisals of the BBI process and document.
The Youth Café, for example, a centrist NGO, called on young people to “critically examine” the proposals, reminding them that the BBI report was not the first time “that the youth have been promised reforms in Kenya.” Additionally, a formation calling itself “Youth for Kenya” said they opposed BBI, citing both youth exclusion, and bigger problems that were not being addressed by the process, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire unemployment situation in the country.
Similarly, and away from Nairobi, in Trans Nzoia County, a youth group linked to the “Trans Nzoia Hustler Movement”, and rumoured to be affiliated to the Deputy President William Ruto, a high profiled BBI-opponent, said they would also reject the “cheap and mysterious document” for similar reasons to those expressed by “Youth for Kenya.”
Other more left-leaning, predominantly youth associations across the country, such as the Social Justice Centres Working Group (SJCWG) as well as the art NGO, PAWA 254, challenged the necessity of the BBI process head on, and in a vernacular that brought home the dire lived realities of young people, which they argue would not be resolved by this latest handshake proposal.
This shared opposition to BBI expressed by a diverse array of Kenyan youth organizations representing different constituencies within this broader demographic – from students to poor urban youth, to NGO affiliated young people, to those from rural areas – speaks to both common frustration over the continued exclusion of young people from the BBI process and deeper anger over the predictable machinations of Kenya’s elite-pacted political system.
It is important to note that their scepticism of BBI persisted despite efforts on the part of the pro-BBI camp to pander to the country’s massive youth demographic, in which 75% of Kenya’s population are under the age of 35. The initiative, for example, promised to set up a Youth Commission to tackle the challenges confronting Kenyan youth, related to public participation and inclusion, generational mentorship, and youth livelihoods and employment. Under the proposed BBI constitutional amendments, the President would have overseen the appointments (with approval of the Senate) of a chairperson and six members, with equal gender representation, of the Youth Commission. This top-down construction of the Commission caused many to question the sincerity of BBI’s actual investment in youth inclusion. Additionally, proponents of BBI sought to rally youth in support of its agenda, using everything from Facebook forums labelled BBI Youth Movement to President Kenyatta engaging in youthful dance-moves at public rallies calling for a dialogue with Kenyan youth.
So, while the future of BBI in Kenya, following the High Court’s ruling, may be uncertain, the hollow jargon of youth inclusion that characterized the initiative’s process is all too familiar. The grand bridge-building vision that strived to write a new and inclusive national history to overcome the numerous divides, whether ethnic, generational, or socio-economic, that have historically torn Kenya apart, present the country’s youth as a central asset for the future. But rather than meaningfully including them in the actual process of defining the political programme of BBI, youth have yet again been treated as a problem and a potential security threat.
Like previous elections in 2002, 2007, and 2017, where youth issues were deemed central political concerns, the focus seems less on actual inclusion and genuine acknowledgement of youth challenges, than on the mobilization and containment of the supposed negative potential of youth.