Taking The Vote

My story is proof that change is possible. That every Kenyan, regardless of where they are born, can make a better life for themselves.

By Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo)

When you’ve grown up with nothing, you learn to treasure what you have. You take nothing for granted. Growing up in Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum, you become desensitized to violence and injustice. They are omnipresent. Everyone around you tells you, “this is just how things are”, and “it will never change”. This is what I have fought my entire life.

My story is proof that change is possible. That every Kenyan, regardless of where they are born, can make a better life for themselves. I am fortunate that my music has given me the chance to provide a better a life for my family and, importantly, my community. But too many Kenyans have lost faith in their ability to impact our society and democracy. They feel powerless. They do not believe that they can make a change, but I am here to remind them that they are wrong. That the power to vote is second to none.

Not just a Kenyan experience, voter apathy is a growing problem across all democracies globally. It is broadly understood as a disengagement with politics that leads to lower voter-turnout and a delegitimization of the entire democratic process. A 2016 study from the International Institute for Democracies and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) finds that the global average voter turnout has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. This trend has coincided with a rise in authoritarianism across the world. With a presidential election scheduled in August this year, Kenya has become the latest country to be facing low voter turnouts.

Elections in Kenya have been characterized by turbulent and even violent elections since the resumption of a competitive multi-party landscape in 1992.

Kenya is one of the longest standing democracies in East Africa. Characterized by our vibrant political scene, Kenya boasts 15 different political parties in elected office. Public involvement is a theme that runs through all the chapters of Kenya’s 2010 constitution. It is a requirement not only in the electoral process but also an ethos for the entire structure of governance. Parliament and county assemblies are required to open their proceedings to the public. However, Kenyan elections are historically a different story.

Elections in Kenya have been characterized by turbulent and even violent elections since the resumption of a competitive multi-party landscape in 1992. This is because politicians at the national level generally mobilise support along ethnic lines, which leads to fierce campaigning and recurring allegations of electoral irregularities often leading to conflicts. Even lower levels of elective posts are characterised by disputed results.

The 2007 elections saw the worst political violence since the introduction of a multi-party system, where after a contested result, 1,500 people were killed and over 600,000 were internally displaced. The 2010 Constitution sought to correct this with electoral reforms and support from international players. Despite these amendments, Kenyan voters – especially women and youth –lack confidence in Kenya’s electoral institutions and in its political leaders. This is especially problematic in a country where 75% of our 48 million population is under the age of 35. Many feel disempowered and have become apathetic to the electoral process, as evidenced by the depressingly low voter registration figures for the upcoming general election.

At the end of the mass voter registration drive held between October and November 2021, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) only managed to register 1.5 million new voters out of its target of 6 million. There is a real need to develop new strategies to engage voters. This is important not just for Kenya and African democracies, but for all democracies globally.

Octopizzo Foundation

When I initially founded the Octopizzo Foundation in 2016, I wanted to focus on unlocking the wealth of artistic talent and potential of young people living in slums, refugee camps and the margins of society. I have worked with the UNHCR’s “Artist for Refugee” program, the World Food Program, the Danish Refugee Council, the British Council, the US Embassy in Kenya, and the EU in Kenya, to develop programs dedicated to enabling social mobility. This includes programs that teach digital skills to young girls, provides clean water to communities, and empowers talented local artisans.

Yet, with the upcoming elections I knew I needed to do more. I approached EU Ambassador to Kenya, Henriette Geiger, with whom I have developed a strong relationship over a number of projects since her arrival in Nairobi. Her dedication to strengthening EU-African partnership made for an ideal partner for my voter registration campaign. She echoed the importance of developing innovative strategies to engage new and young voters to participate in general elections. Since this is an issue that both our continents share, there is a vested interest in each other’s success. Thanks to funding from the EU and in partnership with the IEBC, I am organizing a series of concerts that are free to those who have registered to vote.

Umechukua Kura? – Have you registerd to vote?

“Umechukua kura? – Have you registered to vote?”- I ask the crowd. As the tagline for this campaign, I want to remind young voters of the power they have in determining the future of our country. The first free concert took place in Kibera and was an overwhelming success engaging thousands of newly registered voters. This will be followed by 4 more concerts planned in the months preceding the election. These will take me around the country mobilizing the young and old alike to go out and register to vote.