Case Study: Ukweli Party, Kenya

The Ukweli Party (Swahili for “truth”) grew out of an activist movement and was formally established as a party in  January 2017. The party’s founder, Boniface Mwangi, is a prominent photo journalist and activist who became well known for documenting Kenya’s post-election violence from 2007 to 2008 and for organizing high-profile activism around issues like youth opportunity and civic participation. Prior to launching Ukweli, Mwangi gained followers through PAWA25, a youth organization famous for its theatrical and artistic activism. Mwangi harnessed the power of his large number of followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to launch Ukweli.


Kenyan politics is dynastic, clientelist, and tribe-centric and, despite having over 85 political parties, it is very difficult for new parties to attract many votes. The greatest challenge facing Ukweli has been to convince Kenyans that a new party can do politics differently. The first practical challenge in doing politics differently was the process of registering the party. Without seeking favors or resorting to extraordinary payments, it took three years to receive a registration certificate as a political party, which left party officials scrambling to prepare for the August 2017 elections. Another big challenge for Ukweli has been funding. By refusing to be captured by special interests or selling candidate nominations to corrupt aspirants, the party has struggled to raise the funds needed for outreach activities and basic costs.


Ahead of the 2017 general elections, Ukweli pioneered a new way to raise money and engage citizens in Kenyan politics. Despite nominating 13 candidates, the focus on Ukweli’s 2017 campaign was almost entirely on Mwangi, whose name recognition helped bring in support and funds. His campaign attracted much public attention and is powerfully chronicled in the award-winning documentary Softie. He relied heavily on social media and face-to-face campaigning, where he faced repeated requests for money in exchange for votes. Mwangi and other individual activists challenged the tradition of vote buying by instead promoting crowdfunding. Mwangi managed to raise over $67,000 from grassroots donations. However, less well-known candidates struggled to attract even small amounts of financial support.


Measuring Ukweli’s success in the 2017 elections has been difficult, since there is no extensive data on party membership growth or even election results. After the 2017 elections, Mwangi almost immediately return to civic activism, and his post-election activities were independent of the party. The new party chairperson, Nduko O’Matigere, has been called a “civil rights heavyweight,” but has a lower profile than Mwangi. O’Matigere’s priority is to continue building a base to sustain a viable grassroots political organization to progressively grow into a sustainable party. It is unclear, however, if the party has a coordinated strategy to harness their members' civic activism and translate community-based actions into party campaign strategies. In the absence of a well known leader like Mwangi, official party engagement and responses to community-based issues appear to be driven by the priorities of individual activists rather than being led by party strategy. 
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