As we move towards this year’s General Election, it is clear that many politicians are accompanied on the campaign trail by groups of young men who offer a visible display of popular support and security, and who sometimes help to disrupt the activities of their opponents.
It is often assumed that these individuals are members of organised gangs who are simply paid, or used, by politicians to cause chaos and disorder.
However, when one scratches below the surface, they find a much more complex story.
First, it is clear that politicians employ a wide range of actors. This includes activists and mobilisers (often well-known members of the local community) who can help to draw a crowd and influence how people vote. It also includes bloggers (often university students or recent graduates) who take photos and videos and upload them to the Internet; security personnel (usually muscular men with some training in martial arts or firearms) who ensure the politicians’ safety; and a troop of boda-boda drivers who provide a visual display of support and additional security.
These individuals are all usually paid in one way or another. However, the amount varies significantly. This is a result of the skills involved – a professional bodyguard or popular blogger who earns a decent salary or a boda-boda driver who might get Sh200 to fuel their motorbike and Sh200 to Sh500, and sometimes more, for their time.
Variations in pay also result from more complex negotiations, with some willing to reduce their rates, or to even volunteer, if they are strong supporters of the candidate in question or, more commonly, if they believe that the candidate has a good chance of winning and might later reward them with employment or a business opportunity, or additional training.
In some instances, there are also those who are paid or mobilised to engage in more problematic activities – the multiple voting witnessed during the party nominations and the heckling of opponents on the campaign trail. However, even when it comes to this second category of activities, it is not always true that these individuals are simply paid or mobilised by politicians. Instead, while many are paid, others are ardent supporters and believe their lives will improve, or that they will become further marginalised, if candidate A or B wins.
At the same time, the youth can also hold politicians to ransom. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear candidates complain of how, if they want to enter a certain area, they need to pay the local youth to provide “security” so as to ensure that their rallies go ahead without disruption. Finally, the idea that the youth are simply used by politicians is to deny them of any agency when, in reality, many of them have an end in sight. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to professional employees, such as bloggers and bodyguards, but it is also true of those in gangs or loosely affiliated groups. In short, and as the anthropologist Naomi van Stapele writes in relation to gangs in Mathare, these groups are “popularly conceptualised as age-sets that helped young men to progress from junior to senior manhood”.
Indeed, for many, the dream is to use the money earned through various activities, including from the opportunities thrown up by the election campaigns, to invest in more legitimate futures.
As a result, many gangs or loosely organised groups of youth change their character over time as individuals use the networks they have developed and resources accumulated to move into party politics or business.
This includes, to give just one example, former members of the notorious American Marines and China Squad in Kisumu, many of whom are now “big men” with significant business interests, whose appetite for chaos has been reduced by the fact that it might have a detrimental impact on their own shops and kiosks.
Such complexity is important as it has implications for how such individuals and groups behave. From the diehard supporters who believe that their life will improve if candidate A wins to the economic opportunists who are simply trying to earn a living in the context of an increasingly crowded and competitive political field.
Gabrielle Lynch is professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.