The One to Watch in the Kenyan Election: This Photographer Turned Rabble-Rouser

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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 startup-esque “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.”

Over the past decade, Mwangi, an unassuming 34-year-old, has gone from being a shy staff photographer for a local newspaper to one of Kenya’s most politically divisive figures. In today’s Kenyan general election, he’s running to represent the Starehe constituency in Nairobi County. Earlier this year, he unveiled his own political party, Ukweli Party. His images of the 2007–08 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 Mwangi is bringing it back.”

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

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 even though economic growth has dwindled to just below 6 percent, it is steady. Despite intermittent attacks by Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, 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 2007–08 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 Mwangi 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, as Mwangi tells it, he couldn’t stop himself: He yelled a question to the president about the postelection violence — and 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 paraded 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 shifted to journalism.

Since then, Mwangi has changed gears once more — less Che Guevara, more Banksy. Less sprint, more marathon. In 2011, he founded an art collective, PAWA254, focused on empowering Kenyan youth to express their political views through songs and screenplays.

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 Mwangi of trying to overthrow the government. In today’s electoral race, Mwangi personifies the anti-establishment rhetoric that has gripped nations around the world.

In 2016, Mwangi told OZY he’d given up on the idea of getting into conventional politics, but he hadn’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.” Today, the Kenyan people will decide if that holds true for Mwangi.

This story has been updated since it was first published on Jan. 30, 2016. Sushmita Pathak contributed reporting.

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