The Kenyan Establishment's Worst Nightmare

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Why you should care

Because he may be what Kenya’s corrupt elite fears most.

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Situated in a swank Nairobi neighborhood a stone’s throw from the president’s residence, Boniface Mwangi’s office looks like a typical Kenyan startup. The walls are decorated with motivational quotes, and within them, half a dozen young Kenyans are clacking away on MacBooks. As for Mwangi, he couldn’t look more conventional, in his checked shirt and vest. Even a bit professorial.

Look closer. Those spray-painted quotes are not of the startuppy “Move Fast and Break Things” ilk, and Mwangi’s group says it’s engaged in a feat far more dangerous, and far less lucrative, than building the next African unicorn. It is building democracy in a troubled country, one that would rather forget about the “crisis” of eight years back, when as many as 1,400 people were killed in election and postelection violence. Mwangi can’t forget. The image on the office wall, watching over the clackers, is of Rosa Parks. The text: “You should never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”

He yelled a question to the president about the postelection violence. And was promptly beaten, arrested and jailed.

Over the past decade, Mwangi, an unassuming 32-year-old, has gone from being a shy staff photographer for a local newspaper to one of Kenya’s most politically divisive figures. His images of the 2007-2008 postelection violence brought the political class face-to-face with the consequences of their rhetoric, and almost ever since, he’s been campaigning to bring to light Kenya’s most uncomfortable truths, from widespread corruption to dangerous tribalism. “There was a fire burning in the ’90s,” says Otsieno Namwaya, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Kenya, when Kenyans resisted former President Daniel arap Moi. But it languished and died. Now, says Namwaya, “Mwangi seems able of bringing it back.”

To many observers, the East African powerhouse doesn’t seem to be in much need of civil disobedience. Yes, Kenya has corruption, but the last elections went on peacefully, and the economy is growing at a steady, 6 percent clip. Despite recent attacks by Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab, the country remains synonymous with safaris and startups. Many Kenyans prefer it that way, Mwangi says in his TED Talk, above. They’d prefer to be “smart cowards” than dead.

Mwangi doesn’t seem to have that option. Having seen and photographed the killed, displaced and raped, “I was a very disturbed man,” he says. As he sees it, the perpetrators of the 2007-2008 violence included small-time politicians, ministers, even the current president; they all managed to slip away from justice, both in Kenya and on the international stage. One day he showed up at a stadium where the president was speaking. He’d arranged to meet friends there, and together make a public show of executive accountability. The friends bailed, and left Mwangi to himself. As he tells it, he couldn’t stop himself: He yelled a question to the president about the postelection violence. Mwangi was promptly beaten, arrested and jailed.

He emerged a more deliberate man. Later protests would tend toward the theatrical. Mwangi graffitied the faces of alleged war criminals all over Nairobi. In 2013, he brought a bunch of pigs in front of Parliament and spilled cow’s blood on the ground to protest corruption. “In this country you are guilty until proven rich,” he says. Rich, Mwangi is not. Growing up with a single mother who sold trinkets on the street, Mwangi dreamed of being a lawyer or a cop. Then, he says, he realized that policemen are often criminals, so he went into journalism.

Now, however, Mwangi is changing gears — less Che Guevara, more Banksy. Less sprint, more marathon. His art collective, PAWA254, is now focused on empowering the Kenyan youth to express their political views through songs or screenplays. Today, for example, Mwangi is meeting with one of Kenya’s best-known graffiti artists, to design a memorial for the hundred soldiers recently killed by Al-Shabaab. “The government won’t give them a memorial, so we will,” he says as he prints out photos of helmets and writes checks for his staff to buy toy guns.

The government disagrees with much of what he says and does. While the office of the prime minister declined to comment for this article, the previous chair of the National Security Advisory Committee, Francis Kimemia, accused him of trying to overthrow the government. Others, however, think quite the opposite: Mwangi is going soft. After all, his foundation is a nonprofit and survives mainly on donations from the Swedish and Swiss governments. Witney W. Schneidman, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, points out that “foreign governments wouldn’t want to be seeing meddling with the local political process.”

As for future projects, Mwangi remains tight-lipped. He says he’s given up on the idea of getting into conventional politics, but he hasn’t ruled out starting his own political party. Namwaya observes that “what it takes to paint graffiti and get media attention is not the same as what it takes to get votes.” Mwangi would agree. Right now, his main focus is trying to expand PAWA254 to other regions of the country and finish his second photography book. It’s a compilation of 10 years of work, to be titled Boom Twaff. He says it’s because he grew up with hip-hop, and the “boom twaff, boom boom twaff” rhythm describes his style precisely. “I’m all up in your face; that’s what I do.”

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