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Nairobi's divided electorate

Battle for popular support risks polarising the city in much the same way politicians have used tribes in the past.
Last modified: 30 Jan 2013 13:58
Severe post-election violence broke out in January 2008 [GALLO/GETTY]

Political battle lines have been drawn in Kenya's capital Nairobi, but now the trenches run along lines that this city has never seen before.

Arguably, for the first time in the history of multiparty politics here, Nairobi's county elections will be more along class lines rather than the traditional tribal blocs.

The city with three million people hosts some of Africa's biggest slums and a majority of city voters - 60 percent according to government statistics - are urban poor.

So naturally politicians are desperately trying to outdo each other by attempting to prove they are the most connected to these majority who have earned the popular title "masufferers", which roughly translates as "people who suffer in the slums or hustlers".

It is a term that emerged last year in a parody of the national budget that went viral on social media, but far from being an insult, the masaffurers have worn the name proudly.

Now we are seeing politicians fall over themselves to show that they too have suffered, never mind that most of them are extremely wealthy.

Flamboyant style

Michael Mbuvi, Nairobi senate candidate, is also known as Sonko, meaning rich man or boss.

He is known for his flamboyant lifestyle – he dresses like a hip hop star with an appetite for oversized gold jewellery; he drives a flashy Mercedes with a Hummer for his bodyguards; and an evolving hairstyle that is now a Mohawk topped by a bleached peace symbol.

It has made him a darling of the youth. He dresses like them; talks like them; hangs out with them and makes them feel he understands their frustrations.

But in his attempt to appeal to the masufferers, Mbuvi overstepped even his own extravagant mark.

A photo in a national newspaper showed him at a campaign rally with a torn shoe, his toes sticking out like a vagabond.

Fashion icon

 Mbuvi's closest opponent may not be as outrageous in her dress style, but Margaret Wanjiru too has also gone all out reminding the masufferers that she is one of them.

She also has an extravagant appetite for fashion [she once told me she never wears the same dress twice in a year].

As an evangelical minister, she often tells her congregation that her wealth and beauty are gifts from God.

Now, in campaign speeches and debates, Bishop Wanjiru reminds the masufferers of what she too has done for them: handing out food once a year on her birthday; offering spiritual nourishment through her church; and often visiting the slums.

The scramble for the bottom has seen politicians from very unlikely quarters at pains to prove that they too have their roots there.

Boy from the hood

Evans Kidero – a top contender for governor – is a well-oiled man.

Cultured, suave with a corporate background, he has big ideas on how to transform the Nairobi metropolis.

In public debates he often appears detached, arrogant and aloof. But he too knows he needs the masufferers' votes.

So, he has been at pains to insist that he is really just a "boy from the hood".

He insists he was raised in the ghetto, still has relatives in the neighbouhood but has managed to rise above poverty.

His fierce competitor has one over him.

Street-wise politician

Ferdinand Waititu is out to prove that he is more downtrodden than Kidero ever will be. He brags about having lived in the vast, sprawling Kibera slum for 25 years.

He is a rough, street-wise politician who will not shy away from a brawl even if it gets him arrested.

There are images of him joining his Nairobi constituents as they pelt police with stones in a tussle over land.

The poor love him. But the middle class is wary.

Historically, the middle and upper classes in Nairobi vote in low numbers, but because of the nature of the political battle, this time it might be different.

Battle for support

When the populist types trumped more corporate ones in the recent party primaries, the middle class went on a social-media frenzy.

They questioned their credentials, their educational background and urged each other to vote in the March election to block the populists and, by extension, the masufferers.

This is not a struggle for competing ideologies though.

It's not about leftists arguing for the rights of the workers versus rightwing campaigners defending free-market economics.

This is a much less sophisticated battle for popular support that risks dividing the city in much the same way politicians have used tribe in the past.

Voters here cannot afford to divide themselves along class lines, and risk the kind of violence that has so often split tribes.