MWEA, Kenya — At one of his last campaign rallies, George Wajakoya drove into the town of Mwea with his head and shoulders sticking out of the hatch of an SUV. Other cars followed behind, one with a huge speaker playing reggae and announcing his name.
He is a Kenyan presidential candidate whose outlandish proposals — including selling hyena testicles to boost the economy — have electrified young people across the East African country.
Wajakoya is a respected human rights lawyer who became an instant celebrity when he announced his candidacy for the presidency. His unconventional politics — his main proposal to legalize marijuana — have shaken up a presidential race dominated by old and familiar faces in a country of more than 50 million people.
Mwea is a small rice-growing town at the foot of Mount Kenya, and as soon as the residents realized what was happening, a crowd rushed behind Wajakoi’s car.
“We are the only political party without a billboard, without a secretariat, without offices,” said the 63-year-old candidate. “We don’t pay people, because where is the money?”
While no one here thinks Wajakoya will become Kenya’s next leader (polls show him at around 2% of the vote), in a tight race he could force the two front-runners — current Deputy President William Ruto and veteran opposition campaigner Raila Odinga — into a runoff. , if neither party gets more than 50% of the vote during Tuesday’s election.
And the enthusiasm for Wajakoi’s candidacy — his motorcade is mobbed when it stops in Mwea — suggests that many Kenyans yearn for a new way of doing things.
“In Japan, if you steal, they give you a chance to commit suicide,” Wajakoya said. “In Kenya, if you steal, you go to parliament or the senate.”
In his Kenya, corrupt politicians will have a choice of how to die. He smiled broadly as the crowd took in the remark, then offered his most popular political suggestion.
“We have to change our thinking to look at the economy and fix that economy – and the only way to fix the economy is to grow weed!” – he shouted into the microphone.
Suddenly, you felt the euphoria covering every corner of the city. Teenage girls screamed excitedly and the crowd started chanting, “Bhangi! Bhangi,” or pot in Swahili.
Maureen Kaonda, who observed the rally, says Wajakoi is misunderstood by young people. She says he’s not talking about smoking weed.
“He’s talking about exporting it — so that people are rich, so that the country is rich,” she said.
Simon Mahira, 57, agreed wholeheartedly.
“The Kenyan government ordered us to plant tea, plant cotton, but it didn’t bear fruit,” he said. After years of government promises, politicians are still corrupt and people are still poor, he added, so maybe now is the time to try something radical.
Ngala Chome, a policy analyst at Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank, called Wajakoa’s policy proposals “comical”.
But, he added, they all have to do with what Kenyans are most concerned about in this election: the economy.
He says the Wajackoyah campaign is part of something new in Kenya. In the past, politics centered around tribalism. But this time, with high inflation, fuel shortages and high employment, the economy is a more powerful message. And even a marginal candidate like Wajakoya can feel it.
“He’s tapping into these emotions of people who are in debt, people who are basically broke,” he said.
Chome said he doubts his promises will come true. But Wojatskoy’s campaign points to one positive development in Kenyan politics: For the first time, he says, politicians are being forced to think about the issues that most concern Kenyans.
Away from the rally, Wajakoya showed his seriousness. He has transformed from a showman who dances to reggae in a car to a lawyer who defends his radical proposals.
Medical marijuana can be sold in Israel, he said. And if you kill a few corrupt politicians, he added, you will rid the country of corruption.
“African problems can be solved,” he said. “Very simple. That’s why I’m even talking to the president, I’m talking [front-runner] Raila Odinga, I tell [front-runner William] Ruto: “The money you stole, give it back or I will kill you.”
Wajackoyah addresses the lack of industry in the country and offers to sell dog meat to China. He looks to weary Kenyans and proposes a four-day work week.
When this reporter asked if he was giving Kenyans false hope with simple answers, he bristled. China and the Philippines, he said, have solved big problems, why can’t Kenya?
When this reporter mentioned that both of these countries have terrible human rights records, he scoffed.
“Human rights, my ****,” said the human rights activist. “Come on, let’s free our country first and then do what we have to do.”
John Odhiambo contributed to this report.