Monday, July 10, 2017

Prominent Kenyan Social-Justice Activist Takes his Fight to Parliament

Social Justice Activist Turned Politician Boniface Mwangi
Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Boniface Mwangi, Kenya’s political firebrand and award-winning photojournalist, was thrust into the limelight in 2007 when his photos—documenting the horrors of his country’s post-election violence—were broadcast by news outlets around the world. The rampage that took the lives of over 1,000 people and displaced half a million would prompt Mwangi to quit his job at one of Kenya’s biggest newspapers to organize a traveling photo exhibition documenting the bloodshed. It also turned him into a full-time social justice activist.
“Growing up in a community where you’re not allowed to speak your mind, seeing injustices, seeing people being oppressed and feeling that something must change,” Mwangi said, were reasons he felt driven to do more than photograph government abuse and neglect.

In March 2017, five months shy of the general elections, the activist launched Ukweli Party, the platform on which he is running as a member of parliament for Starehe, a county in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. As MP, he vows to continue the work he’s “been doing from the outside,” while taking a 50% pay cut and forgoing the perks and allowances typically conferred on parliamentarians. If elected, the 33-year-old said he’ll pass laws to protect small traders and hawkers — whom he claims are treated liked common criminals—from harassment, and set aside funds for sports, arts, libraries and training programs that will equip people with entrepreneurial skills.
Mwangi’s activism started early: At age 14, he was expelled for exposing misconduct at his school in a local newspaper, and subsequently dropped out of the education system when his single mother couldn’t afford the fees at an alternative school. He soon joined her hawking books on the streets.
“She was very practical,” the father-of-three said of his late mother.
As an adult, photojournalism sharpened Mwangi’s view of corruption and the plight of marginalised Kenyans unable to afford basic needs. And that, together with the lack of accountability for the post-election violence instigated his solo heckling of former president Kibaki during a nationally broadcast speech.
For his troubles, he was beaten by the police and arrested. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said, recalling the 2009 incident.
Still, the fear that corruption will “swallow my children” has kept Mwangi from backing down despite death threats and pleas from his wife and siblings.

Boniface Mwangi at Occupy Parliament Protest
Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Schaeffer Okore, vice chair of Ukweli Party, believes Mwangi’s foray into politics will lead “a new generation of Kenyans down the path of servant leadership by demonstrating what it means to have [the] people in power and not an individual.” However, not all of his supporters are thrilled about his political ambitions, with some arguing politics is the preserve of self-serving politicians and shouldn’t be mixed with activism.
But political analyst Barrack Muluka disagrees: “Boniface Mwangi has seen the trenches. He’s been an active mobiliser. He’s talked about corruption and criticized members of parliament. It would be wrong for anyone to say you should remain an activist because you started out as one.”
Benji Ndolo, a political strategist, described the activist’s decision to run as “noble” but noted that his political naïveté, impatience with the political process and his party’s relative obscurity make him vulnerable. “Nobody really knows Ukweli Party. Nobody knows who is behind this party,” Ndolo said. He added that for Ukweli Party to influence debates and make inroads politically, Mwangi needs to “build up an ideological movement” and enter parliament with a cadre of like-minded individuals “rather than go alone.”
Other factors working against him include the entrenched ethnic-based politicking among Kenya’s 42 tribes and Mwangi’s reputation as a straight shooter.
“Boniface is not politically correct,” Muluka said, referencing his public feud with deputy president William Ruto and refusal to align with the political kingmakers. He concedes that the MP aspirant is running a “dignified campaign” as a member of the “humanitarian tribe,” but predicts he won’t win the election because “unfortunately people vote along tribal lines.”
For his part, Mwangi said he’s not interested in running a popularity contest nor is he looking to win affection. “I don’t want anyone to love me, that’s not what I want. I want Kenya to be better.” While expressing a willingness to form alliances with like-minded parliamentarians, he also shot back at critics who characterize his confrontational style of activism as a publicity gimmick. “That’s bullshit. If there are better ways to do it, why can’t they do it?” he asked, visibly irritated. “Why would I try to risk my life and get threatened … for attention?”
So far, Ukweli Party has raised roughly two million of its targeted 10 million Kenyan shillings ($100,000) through crowdfunding. A small percentage, to be sure, but in a country where deep pockets rule elections and handing out cash for votes is the norm, Mwangi stands out for soliciting “10 bob” (10-cent) donations from grass-roots supporters.
With the August 8 general election just weeks away, it’s difficult to see how the party will close the deficit in time. “Kenyans are deeply supportive,” Ukweli vice chair Okore wrote in an email. “I’m very hopeful we’ll meet [our] target.”
So does the political neophyte think he has a shot at winning come August 8th?
“I’m going to win,” Mwangi replied emphatically, refusing to entertain questions about his next move in the event he loses. “Kenyans have funded my campaign [and] I’m working very hard,” he declared.