Governance & community
Governance & community
Votes were stolen in every past election. And the youth? We lost faith in the voting process. But maybe now, things can change.

As of the end of 2021, over 8 million 18-24-year-olds in Kenya were eligible to vote in the 2022 general election. That’s the largest youth electorate in Kenyan history, representing around 28% of the total electorate.

But by May 2022, as voter registration ended, the IEBC reported that just under 2.3 million Kenyans aged 18 to 24 had registered to vote.37

Young people’s voices were under-represented in the 2022 elections

Eligible to vote
Kenyans aged 18+
18-24 year olds
Registered to vote
Kenyans aged 18+
18-24 year olds
Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2019. Kenya Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, 2022.

The IEBC has not released demographic voter data, however our research suggests that some recurring factors are likely to have impacted who turned out to vote. For example, young women are slightly less likely to plan to vote than men (63% compared to 68%), while 80% of young Kenyans in post-secondary education said they intended to vote, compared to 61% with less than primary education. And intention to vote increased from 42% among the lowest earners to 74% in the highest.

But, as polls closed across the country in August 2022, available data suggests that young people are likely to have represented less than 10% of votes.38 So, what happened – why did young Kenyans not engage in the 2022 elections?

In focus group discussions and polling we conducted during the election period, young people cited a number of structural barriers that kept them from the polls. In particular: not having access to a national ID card; being unsure about voting procedure; or not being able to afford the cost of travel to a registration or polling station.

However in a dipstick SMS poll conducted before the election, four of the top five reasons given for not registering to vote – and half of all responses – were linked to a loss of trust in the ability of the leaders on the ballot to change their lives for the better.39

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have had a significant impact here. In August 2020, 84% of young people said they felt they were ignored by decision makers in the pandemic response.40 In our focus groups during the period, discussions often focused on reports of corruption, abuse and mistrust – mirroring trends in discourse online.41

Another simple factor was confusion. In a dipstick poll we ran before the elections, only half of respondents said they felt confident that they understood the electoral process, and just under 50% said they understood how Kenya’s devolved government structure works.42 The contested 2017 general election, and the legal and political confusion that followed, are likely to have contributed to that confusion.

After I cast my vote, I felt relaxed. I felt like I have used my right and felt some freedom. There is that peace that someone feels after they attain something that is theirs. It’s a right and we should claim it. So I claimed mine and felt okay and free. I felt better but was also mentally prepared that my decision may not be the final outcome. But my main aim was to vote, to exercise my right. In the end, I felt that my right was mine.

The big trend: This generation believes in the values of democracy

Youth have a role to play in local governance
100% agree
Source: Shujaaz Inc nationally-representative survey 2017-2022. Note: The annual survey did not go ahead in 2020.
The last five years show us that the majority of this generation – nearly 7 in 10 people, on average – still have faith in democracy.
There have been hurtful setbacks. Kenya’s unstable 2017 election put a dent in young people’s belief that they could play a role in local governance.
But just 12 months later, this belief had bounced back in a big way, reaching its highest point in the past five years.
The pandemic – where young people believed they were ignored by their government – has left this generation feeling disillusioned.
Despite those setbacks, young people still strongly believe in the electoral process: they believe their vote can make a difference.
Crucially, most young people believe they can personally help to shape Kenya’s political future.

It is clear that young Kenyans’ trust in formal politics has been eroded by the economic and political instability of the last 6 years, from 2017’s contested elections to the pandemic. However – far from the ‘apathetic youth’ stereotype – this generation’s belief in the values of democracy and participation remains incredibly high.

While the proportion of young people who believe they can personally play a role in local governance might be at its lowest level in the last 6 years, at 58%, it still remains an impressive figure that exceeds international benchmarks.43

Perhaps most importantly, our early research suggests the 2022 elections – the most peaceful, transparent election process in decades – might already be helping to restore this generation’s trust and confidence in Kenya’s governance structures.

The 2022 elections help to restore trust

of 18-24-year-old said in a dipstick SMS poll that the 2022 elections have changed their level of trust in the electoral process.44
of 18-24-year-olds said in a dipstick SMS poll that the 2022 elections have motivated them to vote next time.44

In focus groups conducted after the elections, young people praised the work of the IEBC in helping to improve the transparency and trustworthiness of the electoral process. They talked about being reassured to see completed ballots posted online to aid verification, and being glad that appeals were conducted through the proper constitutional channels – and that the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold William Ruto’s victory was accepted peacefully on both sides.

In the same dipstick SMS survey, respondents expressed their cautious optimism about the 2022 election season. When asked to use one word to describe their reflections, 69% used positive adjectives, with the largest group (40% of all respondents) saying they felt ‘hopeful’.

Furthermore, when we look beyond ‘formal’ governance participation, more than 80% of young people say that they feel they have something to offer their communities, and to the world. This generation believe in a brighter future – and that they have a powerful role in creating one.

We showed some maturity this time. We are confident that when other elections come, we will not have violence. We will have peaceful elections so that we can go continue with our hustles… I wasn’t happy with the results of the election since I expected my leader to get it. But it's okay. With whoever won, we pray that we will work together well and they do not discriminate against us. That they will help us Kenyans. We need a good leader who will fix the economy.

Governance ≠ Politics: Young Kenyans put community first

When we talk about youth ‘participation’ in governance, the conversation is often centred around formal politics: voting, campaigning or standing for election.

But the reality is, that’s only part of the story. ‘Participation’ can mean something formal, like going to a baraza (council meeting). But it can also mean something more informal, like playing in a football match, or volunteering at church.

Young people are committed to their communities

9 in 10
young people are engaging sociallywith their communities.45
8 in 10
young people believe they can makean impact in their communities.46

When you look beyond the ballot box, you discover something important: healthy democracies are built around connected communities. ‘Governance’ is about more than ‘politics’. It happens at a micro-local level.

The most common social engagements for young people

Community events47
Recreational events48

Political scientists underline that these kinds of participation help societies to flourish.49 In fact, strong community engagement is associated with greater trust, cooperation, economic growth and democracy.50 Put simply, when young people have an active role to play in shaping their communities, everybody wins.

In our conversations with young people, we asked: “What will you do first when you achieve success?” More than 50% said: “Give back to my community, to other youth or to my family.”51 Only 3% talked about buying something for themselves. And while 82% of young Kenyans believe they have something to contribute to their communities, only 46% feel they’re able to make a big impact in their community.52

This generation has much more to contribute. And over the next 15 years, whether young people are able to participate – at every level of governance – will have defining implications for Kenya’s ability to make that ‘demographic dividend’ leap into greater economic and social prosperity.

If you’re telling a 50-year-old person to talk about the issues that are affecting a youth at 18, it doesn’t make sense! It is better youth are given this platform to talk about these issues and majorly what affects them, so that it can reach the leaders at top levels.

Where next: What young people need now

After the most peaceful election in decades, and with five years to go until the next national elections, Kenya has an opportunity to engage this crucial generation from the ground up – and to rebuild their trust in political processes.

Do young Kenyans believe that their generation has a role to play in local governance?
64% feel they have a role to play
On the horizon
On the horizon83% of young Kenyans feel hopeful about the future, but they’re concerned about how big changes on the horizon will affect their lives.

37 Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (September 2022) Voter Registration Age Distribution per County.

38 The exact numbers of young people who voted in the general election are yet to be released, but international patterns show it is unlikely that all those who registered will have turned out to vote on polling day.

39 Ibid.

40 SMS survey of Shujaaz fans, N=945, August 2020.

41 Shujaaz Inc (2020, Issue 2) Shujaaz Inc Compass: Navigating the Road Ahead. Generation Engaged: How Young People Can Improve Kenya’s Governance – If We Let Them.

42 Ibid.

43 A 2015 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that only 20% of Americans aged 18-29 considered themselves politically engaged, and only 36% considered voting to be part of who they were. Harvard Institute of Politics, Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service 28th Edition: October 30.

44 Shujaaz Inc dipstick SMS survey, October 2022 (N=194)

45 Shujaaz Inc nationally-representative survey of Kenyan youth 15-24 years old Wave 6 (N=2,006), November 2021-January 2022.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Putnam R. D. (1995) “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”. Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995, 65-78. | Stefan Vucojevic (2014) “Impact of social capital on the development of democracy”. Defendologija, v1, November 2014.

50 Ibid.

51 SMS survey with Shujaaz fans (N=417), June 2020.

52 Shujaaz Inc nationally-representative survey of Kenyan youth 15-24 years old Wave 6 (N=2,006), November 2021-January 2022.