As Kenyans prepared nervously for their first general election since the violence-marred poll of 2007, HIV and health activists led a highly innovative election campaign fight, demanding leaders look beyond manipulation of tribal divisions for votes, instead forcing them to win support by addressing the issues that really matter.
In a country where over 62,000 people died in 2011 from AIDS-related illnesses, meaningful action from leaders currently seeking office is desperately needed. Maureen Milanga, 24, from Nairobi has been working for over a year, building up a grassroots movement to secure Presidential candidates’ commitment to deliver universal access to HIV treatment and to spend 15% of the government budget on health.
Maureen and her colleagues from the AIDS Law Project, HealthGAP and the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK) criss-crossed the country to distil the recommendations of people living with HIV into a HIV Manifesto for the election. Now the activists are taking their demands directly to the candidates ahead of the March 4thpoll.
“I’ve just got back from a rally in Kakamega”, said Maureen, speaking in Nairobi last month. “We met with 20 local people living with HIV and made banners demanding access to treatment for all. We got there early and set up directly opposite the podium so when the presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, came out to speak we would be the first thing he sees. Two guys lifted me and another lady on their shoulders so the banner was really high – he couldn’t miss us. But just in case, the team interrupted him three times during his speech to chant our demands.”
The tactic worked – Odinga, the former Kenyan Prime Minister and joint favourite with competitor Uhuru Kenyatta for the Presidency, demanded his people find out who they represented and what they wanted, and crucially to offer them a meeting. This approach has been repeated to great success at rallies across Kenya, eliciting on-the-record commitments from candidates from across the political spectrum.
The coordinated disruptions continued over the last month of the campaign and just over a week before the poll, Odinga, under pressure from 17 people living with HIV carrying placards, announced to a crowd of thousands in front of the media that he would deliver free access to HIV treatment for all and direct 15% of the national budget to health – a startling achievement for a small but organised campaign effort.
But what may seem like standard election campaigning to outsiders is virtually unheard of in Kenyan politics. The last, indeed every, election in Kenya has been won and lost less on the quality of a candidate’s policies or competence, but rather careful arithmetic and alliance building amongst the leaders of tribal voting blocs. Kenya has consistently disappointed since independence with poverty and inequality increasing rather than decreasing. Many blame a political elite rarely held to account for their failings and this is what the activists are hoping to change. When asked if making demands of political candidates like this is normal, Maureen burst into laughter,
“No – not really! In the beginning when we started doing it everybody was really sceptical. We would go around the country telling them, ‘You know, we will be attending political rallies and trying to get politicians to say things about HIV’ and some people were pretty freaked. I must admit that I was a bit scared myself in the beginning, but we got help from people with HIV who had mobilised to mount a very visible HIV presence in 2002’s election, as well as organisations who have done this kind of campaigning in the US and other countries who gave us tips on how to do it, and how to make it safe in an African country.”
It is salient to remember that unexpected violence plunged Kenya – which had a reputation for peaceful, if flawed, democracy – into crisis after the disputed results of the last general election, claiming thousands of lives and leaving a deep scar on the national psyche. And the violence has not disappeared. Whilst, to most eyes, the 2007-08 violence erupted from nowhere, this year’s campaign witnessed isolated but deadly incidents linked to the poll. Milanga and her colleagues have had to navigate the risks involved very carefully.
“There are all kinds of risks, the main one being the people attending the rally being really rowdy and wanting to attack you....And also you face the risk of getting muffled out by party officials. But we make sure that we communicate that we’re there to exercise our right to free speech, even including brief disruptions of the rally. We make it clear we’re not representing any other political party. And usually we stand next to the press!”
Despite the safety concerns Maureen claims she loves it. “I almost wish there was an election every year. It’s great to be part of something that I believe is going to end AIDS. If they accept the guidelines in our manifesto, and we hold them to their word, it would mean that Kenya would be able to end the epidemic very soon.” Clinical trials proved in 2011 that HIV treatment also prevents the transmission of the virus, with scale up to universal anti-retrovirus drug coverage now a key aspect of an AIDS-response strategy that many believe could finally begin the end of AIDS.
For the Kenyans taking part, the experience can be nerve-wrecking and is always new, explains Milanga, “We get there early to prep the 20 or so local people living with HIV who we are going to take part in the action...you need to make them feel comfortable. We work with the national network of people living with HIV. All kinds of people take part.
“It’s a new experience for them, but it’s something that they take positively. It’s not something that most people do; people don’t take the government to task…they find themselves being able to ask the government for what they need…it makes them feel good to be able to say ‘I am able to ask my government for something I need.’”
Politicians, too, have had to adapt quickly to this new political dynamic. Used to events crammed with unquestioning supporters, at first they assume the activists are from the opposition, sent to disrupt their campaigning. But they now understand the rationale, adapting their stump speeches to address health and their commitments in the area. As Maureen argued,
“There are 1.6m people living with HIV in Kenya. If you add our friends, families and workmates– that’s a formidable voters’ bloc. And being faced with a life-threatening illness can transcend tribal affiliations—if one candidate pledges to help the AIDS community a great deal more, and more visibly than the others, he will gain a windfall of voters that can carry the day in hard-hit ‘swing’ areas like Western Kenya, Nairobi and the Coast.”
And that is the hope, that this election will see Kenya transition into a more mature democracy that focuses on policies proposed and results delivered by politicians. Other changes are in evidence too – the first-ever live televised debate earlier this month saw eight presidential candidates line up behind a row of podiums to defend their record, critique their opponents and pitch for support. It had Kenya hooked, and gave politicians with no large tribal backing, and so little chance at the polls, the opportunity to hold the front-runners to account – another subtle shift.
The political campaigning by health activists could, it’s hoped, inspire others to engage and change the system. Paul Davis, a seasoned HIV campaigner from the U.S., now based in Nairobi, has seen these tactics work in congressional and presidential elections in both the States and Kenya.
“Aside from everything else they tell you about the honour of representing their community or their drive to make a difference, politicians care about attaining and retaining power. And when we can make demands directly of aspiring candidates and stand on their toes until we change their responses, the democratic process is working. That’s as true in Kenya as it is in Kentucky. Here, we are all sick of ineffective political leaders, so it has been exhilarating to join with activists using the power of direct access to confront candidates during election season, making leaders choose between delivering for Kenyans or getting turfed out of office. Over six per cent of Kenyans are living with HIV. It is not acceptable, or, in such a closely fought election, smart, for politicians to ignore them.”
As the focus shifted to ensure other candidates match Odinga’s historic pledge, Milanga had hopes for her work, for a peaceful election, and for the future of her country,
“I want to see a Kenya where politicians don’t just tell stories from the podium when they are holding a political rally. I want a Kenya that elects a President who works to better the lives of all. Hopefully we’re helping to change the system to make that a reality.”