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November 21, 2018

Sonko, voice of the underclass

Nairobi senator Mike Sonko./COURTESY
Nairobi senator Mike Sonko./COURTESY

First it was Brexit. Then a real estate mogul triumphed. A comedian, Beppe Grillo, delivered the NO vote in the Italian constitutional referendum. Emmanuel Macron’s “On the Move” trounced France’s establishment parties.

Across the world, globalisation and technology have been accused of concentrating wealth, power and privilege in the hands of political business and intellectual elites at the expense of an expanding, exploited underclass.

Everywhere, the underclass feels dispossessed, cheated, left behind and unloved. They feel they are getting poorer when everyone is getting more prosperous. For the underclass a globalist ideal is at the expense of their prosperity. The liberal globalist idea is antithetical to inclusive prosperity at home.

Populist leaders are emerging to give voice to the underclass. Cas Mudde, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, defined populism as “thin ideology”, which could be attached to a variety mainstream proclivities, such as racism or nationalism.

But the expression of populism in the America, Britain, and France is not just a “thin ideology” in search of a wagon to hitch onto. The populism we are witnessing is a robust challenge to complacent elitism. The populism we are seeing today is what British politician Nick Clegg has referred to as a “raging grievance surging across the democratic world”.

The populism we are witnessing is that of an angry underclass demanding a seat at the table. People like Donald Trump and Grillo have been extremely successful at exploiting anger at an establishment that is out of touch with ordinary people. Giving voice to the frustration of the underclass is one thing. But providing answers to the solutions to their problems – poverty, inequality, rising unemployment – is quite another.

Why should you care about the populism and underclass chatter? Poverty is on the march. Inequality is deepening. We are deep in the era of jobless growth. Urbanisation is proceeding at a dizzying pace and a Kenyan urban underclass is crystallising. Yet our politics is broken, unresponsive.

Nairobi’s candidate for governor on the Jubilee Party ticket, Senator Mike Sonko has built his meteoric political ascent on a multi-ethnic coalition of Nairobi’s large underclass. Sonko gets the youthful urban underclass. Sonko is talking about runaway unemployment among urban youth and the cost of unga. He is talking about training and skills for youth.

Sonko responds to personal distress, including illness, bereavement and debt. Sonko is talking about poor housing and high rents. Sonko is talking about the rights of boda boda and matatu operators. He is talking about hawkers and their rights as bona fide entrepreneurs.

Setting aside Sonko’s theatrics and lack of policy chops, he has a huge loyal constituency. In a survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014, the majority of Kenyan youth identified Sonko as their role model.

Sonko’s multi-ethnic urban coalition is redefining our politics. Ignoring him would be politically naive and socially disingenuous. Regardless of the outcome of the Nairobi governor race, Sonko is politically viable and relevant beyond 2017.


Dr Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University.

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