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Kenyan elections and the rise and rise of the rented crowd

When I am going to work in the mornings, I drive by an open space where usually the masses are gathered.

At the start, there were between 40 and 60, and most of them were men. Then it grew bigger and frenzied.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are crowds for rent. These are the fellows who help fill out the politicians’ election rallies. But they are more than that.

As the days went by, more women — some with children strapped to their backs — joined.

Today, many fellows from the proletarian neighbourhoods of Githongoro and Ridgeways show up and wait, much like the chaps you see on the roadside waiting to be picked up by a truck for casual work at construction sites.

ELECTION ECONOMY

This is one face of the Kenyan “election economy”, so to speak. And I am extremely impressed by the cool-headed spirit of enterprise, political cynicism, and street pragmatism it takes to see and seize this opportunity.

I can imagine that in a good week, some of these fellows will be paid to appear at a Jubilee Party presidential rally, a Nasa presidential stomp, jump on the back of a pick-up truck for an ODM parliamentary candidate, go and root for an independent, and pitch for a Jubilee Party woman representative.

And then do two rival senators, one in the morning, the second in the afternoon. And spend the next two waving tree leaves for about six members of county assembly (MCA) aspirants of all stripes.

In a good week, an industrious rent-a-crowd player can put in 15 rallies, and if he or she is getting just Sh100 for each of them, that is Sh1,500 – the amount some of them make in a month.

UNDERSTANDING

These regular folks display a remarkable understanding of African politics. First, that the promises politicians make are rarely kept.

Therefore, that there is no contract really between the politician on the dais, and the crowds to whom he/she is making those promises.

If that is the case, then you don’t have to be a member of his party, or politically loyal to him, to show up at his rally. The obligation though is created by the crowd rent fee.

President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing wananchi in Moyale town on July 26, 2017. PHOTO | PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing wananchi in Moyale town on July 26, 2017. PHOTO | PSCU

When politicians pay a crowd, it is clear what they are investing in — the visuals.

Those visuals are some of the most critical elements of a campaign, especially in this social media age.

POPULAR

Huge crowd size, first, creates a very important narrative for the politician. It says that you are popular.

It gets you on the front page of newspapers and to be the lead item on TV news.

Also, if the politician is popular, then he is likely to win. If he is likely to win, it creates a vibe that is important for fundraising.

Opportunists looking to back the winning horse, hoping for a good return, and people, in general, who don’t want to squander their money on losing candidates, will gravitate towards the crowd puller.

Crowd size is also a powerful tool in demoralising rivals.

OPINION POLLS

If your competitor shows up and has 50,000 people at a place where you managed only 5,000, that kind of puts you in your place.

But also, in a period of almost daily opinion polls, I notice that crowd size has become the most compelling argument against an unfavourable poll showing.

Under a photograph of a crowd at a rally  disappearing into the hills (with the help of a little Photoshop), campaign cheerleaders say things like: “The opinion polls claim our candidate is at 40 per cent.

These crowds at (Town X) confirm our own confidence that he is at 58 per cent).

And, where you have such promiscuous crowds, the question of whom they will actually vote for is often settled by the fee.

BUSINESS

If someone is the kind of fellow who is selling his presence at rallies, then he will also take a long term view about future business.

He would want the chap who pays him Sh300 for a rally appearance to win, than the one who gives Sh100. Because prices invariably go up, the one who dishes out Sh300 in this election, will probably give Sh400 in five years. The one who is giving out Sh100, will at best double it to Sh200.

So here is the thing. Contrary to the popular view, outside of hard ethnic types, the most understandable and predictable Kenyan voter might be the one who is paid.

 The author is publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]

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