They felt like their vote didn’t matter.
Their leader said the election was rigged.
Maybe it was. So they grabbed a tire threw it into the middle of the road and lit it. Many had no agenda, but others thought it would bring the attention of their leaders.
But their burning tire, their noxious scream, was one of hundreds if not thousands. Even the media, perhaps afraid of escalating violence, barely covered the protests to Kenya’s 2017 presidential election.
In Kenya, as it is everywhere, democracy is a story in which the people must believe if it’s to work.
A few anecdotes of why folks I’ve met in Kenya doubt the story:
Voters are paid for their vote.
This doesn’t happen everywhere, but people can list the counties where it does happen. It used to be that a voter had proof of their vote. A voter would show a candidate’s representative outside the polls and get paid $5. Now their is not proof and the ballot is secret, but that hasn’t stopped the practice. Some voters can earn a total of $25 on election day “voting” for several candidates.
Politicians become rich.
“That’s where the politicians live,” one of my guides told me as we drove past the poshest neighborhood I’d seen in Kenya. There are no McDonald’s in Kenya, but there are McMansions.
Many radio frequencies are owned by politicians. At least that’s what a community group trying to start a community radio station told me. The group even had funding, but they could never get a frequency. They said that politicians either used the stations to promote their own agendas or snatched them up like land hoping for a big pay day.
In fact, one study found that 50% of Kenya’s wealth is in the hands of political families. In 2011, Forbes listed the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta as the 26th wealthiest person in Africa, owning “at least” 500,000 acres.
“The election was rigged”
Shortly before the election an election official was killed. I’ve heard rumors that the ruling party did it so they could tamper with the election results. I’ve heard rumors that the opposition party did it to make it look like the ruling party was tampering with the election.
The opposing presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, deemed the loser by the election officials and the international community, did his own vote count and, surprise, he won! He’s contesting the results in the court.
Regardless of the truth, people see corruption in all of the above and they protest. Protests have led to the death of countless individuals. One driver told me that he wished more “thugs” would have died in the protests as the police cracked down. There’s even a report of a baby beaten to death by police. A #slumlivesmatter movement has sprouted. No one will ever know how many died or were injured because not all lives are accounted for or matter as much as others.
So tires burn.
In the past few days I traveled hundreds of miles in and around Kisumu, where the opposition party is the strongest, and I saw hundreds of places on the road where tires burned. They are easy to spot–burnt rings with perfect circles in the middle. The flaming rubber melts away at the asphalt forming the beginning of a pothole.
Holes in the road make the path forward hard to navigate. But to those who lit the tires, it’s proof they existed, that their votes may not have accomplished anything, but their fires did.