Kenya Elections: Why Political Parties Must Meaningfully Engage Young People

By Robert Aseda

As the electioneering period gets to a high fever pitch, it’s not uncommon to hear politicians across the aisle announce audacious plans concerning what they are going to do for different age-groups, including the youths. The latter has particularly drawn the loudest chatter. Kenya being a country where youths occupy the largest percentage of the population, it is not difficult to understand why political promises are used as baits to attract this age group.

The political parties scramble to show-off their youth-friendly manifestos. They are particularly keen at solving critical issues bedeviling young people including unemployment, insecurity, health and education challenges.

Whereas it is of utmost importance for any government or political party to prioritize youth issues, not just as an important catalyst to development and as a human right, what has been absent from the major political parties has been the meaningful youth participation in this fundamental process. Where there has been an attempt to involve youths, it has been tokenistic and manipulative at the very best. The general idea has been to be seen engaging youth other than actually involving them. Photo-ops, excellent talking points and statements with catchy slogans seem to be the most frequent and most effective. In most cases, young people are patronized for their physical strengths rather than their wit. Abuses take over constructive dialogue, violence over networking.

While every political party wants to solve youth unemployment, for example, no party has attempted to meaningfully and strategically harness the thoughts of young people on these subjects in a structured manner. I know a lot of youth who have significant experiences and lessons to share on some of these issues. Whether successful or unsuccessful entrepreneurs, academia or any other different groups of young people, in rural and urban areas.

This is not to disregard the current efforts by political parties such as ‘Youth Dialogues’ among others; this is to call upon our political parties to do more.

Meaningful youth engagement at all levels and in all settings – rural and urban- is of crucial importance if young people are to feel a sense of ownership of the country and its national development priorities. They are thus able to contribute effectively towards realizing these development agendas. They may not contribute in the same manner as adults, but their sheer numbers, energy, passion, strong networks, creativity and innovation and tools such as technology, are unique strengths that could be the new arsenal needed to catapult us to the Kenya we want. Through this process of meaningful youth participation, young people also learn by doing and is thus a crucial process of grooming leadership. The myth that youths are tomorrow’s leaders must be laid to rest now.

But meaningful youth participation is not just important for young people; it is equally important to the adults and the country. Government priorities are more likely to be in synch with the needs of the population and thus making the priorities more attractive, relevant, effective and thus reaching more people. Otherwise, our government risks being like the generous husband who buys the vegetarian wife some meat and wonders why she is not grateful.

Political parties must, therefore, invest in meaningful youth participation, not as a side thing or an add-on but mainstreamed deep down in their DNA. For this to happen, they must create an enabling environment by demonstrating the political will, capacity strengthening and where the need is a financial investment to support these processes. After all, this is the investment that will yield wonderful flowers.

As the Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan once said, “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.”

The number of young aspirants in this election are encouraging, but political parties must create more sustainable platforms within the party to genuinely engage young people, without any other agenda, other than to infuse their thoughts in governance.

After all, who knows more about youth issues than the youth themselves?

ROBERT ASEDA is the Partnerships and Policy Officer at the Network for Adolescents and Youth of Africa-Kenya Chapter, a youth led advocacy network that does sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy. He has a BSc. Population Health from Kenyatta University. He has undergone training on budget advocacy, policy advocacy and media advocacy by Planned Parenthood Global and Choice for Youth and Sexuality of the Netherlands. He has been involved in the ICPD process and is currently the chairman of the National Youth Consortium on the POST2015 Development Agenda comprising of young people from organizations working in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Kenya. He is also a radio personality, a creative blogger, poet and a regular contributor to local dailies in Kenya. Connect with him on twitter: @Varaq

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