When the final story of the 2017 Kenyan elections is written, the most dramatic icing on the cake that is the political intrigue in this Eastern African country will be the most recent events of 9 March 9 2018. Exceeding the wildest expectations of millions of disgruntled Kenyan citizens skeptical of the political feuds between between Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and opposition leader and self-proclaimed People’s President, Raila Odinga, very few were prepared for the surprise truce called by the two protagonists.
But the surprise had hardly subsided before Kenya woke up to yet another world news shocker, when an investigative expose revealed that UK-based company Cambridge Analytica admitted a hand in manipulating the country’s 2013 and 2017 elections in favour of the government and the ruling Jubilee party. As a result, hardly three months since Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as president, revelations now abound that he may have gotten an edge over his closest nemesis, Raila Odinga, with dubious support from Cambridge Analytica amongst other factors.
Eight months after a grueling national election period that saw President Uhuru Kenyatta claim victory for a second term, Kenyans were stunned at the sight of the two custodians of Kenya’s tumultuous politics shaking hands to bury the hatchet, speaking of a planned process of national dialogue towards a ‘United Kenya’. Were it not for the historically sticky issues that continuously dodge the country’s political landscape, one would have imagined that this was indeed the beginning of a new dawn – or was it?
When it comes to Kenyan politics, it is difficult for one not to be cynical. For the past year, Kenyans have gone through a divisive campaign that threatened to split the country in two. The political campaigns brought tribalism and hate speech to the fore to the point that mainstream segments of Kenya’s political scene threatened to secede for the first time. The 8 August 2017 general elections and repeat presidential elections on 26 October was the second after the promulgation of the Kenyan constitution in 2010, which presumably ushered in a new era of institutional reforms. Unlike the 2013 general elections, the 2017 elections witnessed many firsts. It was the first ever election in both Kenya and Africa as a whole where the results of a presidential election were annulled by a court of law.
Economically, Kenya has generally faced hardship over the past few years, with the majority of the population still living below the poverty line of $2 per day. A noticable decline in economic activity had set in by the time of the 2017 electoral season, characterized by high costs of living, rising inflation, business closures and an increase in incidences of public sector corruption. The average inflation for the year, for example, rose to a five-year high of 11.5% - the highest rate since May 2012 according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, and far above the government’s preferred ceiling of 7.5%.
Kenya’s experience with annulment of presidential elections was a first in the history of the continent. The Supreme Court of Kenya led by Chief Justice David Maraga ruled 4 - 2 in favor of new elections. The Court ruled that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) committed irregularities and breached the constitution. The court called for repeat elections within 60 days in accordance with the constitution. The Supreme Court ruling was a culmination of a toxic, protracted campaign based along tribal lines that divided Kenyans right down the middle. Throughout this period, however, both candidates and especially Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party insisted on nationhood as their campaign strategy disparaging any notions that they were seeking to divide Kenyans.
Finally, the repeat election scheduled for 26 October was boycotted by the main opposition coalition NASA, led by Mr. Odinga. As a result, supporters of the opposition coalition did not show up to vote despite the Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) insisting that Raila Odinga had not procedurally withdrawn from the race.
Traditional negative ethnicity, which has historically defined Kenyan politics, also pervaded the 2017 elections. Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta, mostly from the former Central province, believed it was paramount for their son to finish his second term to solidify his legacy, while his supporters from the Rift Valley province which is the home-base of Deputy President William Ruto threw their weight behind Uhuru because they believed that for William Ruto to have a shot at the Presidency in the next elections in 2022, they must support Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017. NASA’s Raila Odinga, collaborating with Kalonzo Musyoka from former Eastern Province and Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula from the former Western province, as well as Ali Hassan Joho from the Coast region also galvanized support from the perceived “marginalized” regions to form the formidable NASA coalition. Thus, for all intents and purposes, tribalism once again defined electioneering and political relations in the country, thereby exacerbating an already polarized environment.
It must be noted that every five years, Kenya seemingly degenerates into simmering chaos specifically because of the elections and electioneering period. The worst so far was the post-elections violence of 2007/2008 which claimed over 1500 lives and rendered about half a million people displaced. This was defining moment for Kenya in many ways. However, subsequent elections in 2013 and now 2017 proved to be existential threat to the Republic of Kenya.
Two months to the general elections, the IEBC was pressured by the opposition coalition NASA to suspend its IT director James Muhati. Muhati was part of the 2013 team accused of rigging elections by the opposition. Although the reasons were unknown, IEBC promoted the late Chris Chege Msando to conduct the elections. Msando, who had been at the IEBC for a year, was hired from the National AIDs Control Programme (NASCOP). He immediately became a regular face of the IEBC on TV stations, repeatedly assuring Kenyans that all electoral systems were protected from hackers and that elaborate measures had been put in place to ensure that everything went smoothly and no flaws were reported.
Msando had one famous quote referring to past elections where the names of voters verified as dead would “mysteriously” appear on the voter registry. He famously asserted that “no dead voter will walk out of their grave at Langata cemetery to come, vote and go back to their graveyard. The loopholes are sealed”. This provided much needed assurance to the public. Sadly, Msando’s optimism did not last. Ten days before the general elections, Msando was kidnapped from the city centre, tortured, killed and his body dumped in Kikuyu. It is widely speculated, advanced by the opposition, that the kidnappers tortured him to gain the main password into the election management system.
This was a major turning point in the political tempo in the country that was presumed to be directly linked to the elections. Msando’s murder, it seems, drove an even deeper wedge between the opposition NASA coalition and the ruling Jubilee Party, as it was popularly believed that his assassination was linked to the upcoming elections. Although Kenyan police promised investigations, nothing seems to have come of it so far.
Manipulating the System
Turnout on election day was generally impressive. However, it was later revealed that the system had been manipulated to ensure that it began counting and projecting results before some polling stations closed. At around 5.30pm, the first results were projected at Bomas of Kenya, which served as the national tallying center. At around 2:00 on 9 August, Raila Odinga held his first press defiant conference rejecting the results. It was all downhill from here, as the country cascaded towards anarchy.
During this period, the role of external electoral observers, the international community and the diplomatic corps came into focus. In a rather bizarre occurrence, all the US, EU, and African observers endorsed the outcome of the elections, only acknowleding “minimal hiccups”. They called on Raila Odinga to concede defeat, and when this did not happen they called on NASA to go to court to resolve their issues. Throughout the standoff, the Kenya Security Forces unleashed terror and brutality on protestors and innocent citizenry with over 70 confirmed deaths and scores injured and maimed.
NASA petitioned the Supreme Court, which called for a repeat presidential poll on October 26. Come 10 October, Raila Odinga along with his NASA counterparts withdrew from the race as did a massive percentage of voters across the country. NASA believed that its withdrawal would force IEBC to postpone the elections and address irregularities that had been pointed out by the Supreme Court. However, the IEBC, which was now widely perceived as partisan, insisted that Raila and his running mate had not properly withdrawn from the race. At the same time, one IEBC Commissioner, Roselyn Akombe, fled the country fearing for her life. She made public reasons why the election was not free and fair.
Two days to the repeat election, the Deputy Chief Justice’s bodyguard was shot and injured along Ngong Road in Nairobi. The Deputy Chief Justice was to hear a case the following day on the possibility of postponing the repeat poll to allow the IEBC to enact adequate reforms. All Judges gave “excuses” as to why they would not attend, much to the chagrin of the nation. Only Chief Justice Maraga came to “apologize” to the country that there was no quorum to hear the case.
The elections went on as planned, but two civil society representatives and a former member of parliament petitioned its outcome in court. The Supreme Court judges, now compliant, treated the petitioners casually and later dismissed the petition largely on technicalities. It therefore appeared that the Jubilee establishment’s deployment of state machinery had worked.
One Country, Two Presidents?
After President Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in for a second term on 28 November 28 2017, Raila Odinga insisted that he was the people’s choice and thus would be sworn in as the People’s president. Amidst extensive politicking and inflammatory mobilizations that further divided the nation, Raila made good on his threats to be sworn in on 30 January 30 2018 before an massive, ecstatic crowd of thousands that drove the country further into uncertainty. However, three other NASA principals including Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula did not show up for the ceremony, surprising their supporters and heightening speculation of betrayal. As the political discourse continues, suspicion of political betrayal and back-stabbing continue to infiltrate the politics of NASA.
Besieged Media and Electoral Malpractice
The Kenyan media became one of the biggest casualties in the quagmire that was the 2017 Kenyan elections. Media conduct in the 2017 general elections was dangerously flawed and could have greatly contributed to the subversion of democracy during the highly contested polls. In a string of malpractices coupled with an inability and/or unwillingness to pursue accountability against those manning Kenya’s electoral process, those safeguarding peace and security and ultimately the political players in the last six months – the media – reneged on its responsibility be the watchdog of democracy.
In a media monitoring report titled "Media Besieged – A Media Monitoring Report on the coverage of the Kenya Elections 2017”, Peace Pen Communications, a Kenyan-based media organization, delivered a negative verdict in December 2017 concerning the conduct of media outlets and urged unwavering adherence to professionalism during politically sensitive periods. “In a period of 6 months, we watched and monitored media conduct as the elections dynamics unfolded and with every significant change to the process media conduct took a nose-dive with a myriad of biased reporting, inflammatory coverage and heightened sensationalism that largely dented professional conduct”, said Mildred Ngesa, Executive Director of PPC. There was broad recognition that the media did well in reporting the election process and generally helped citizens follow up on the issues. However, accountability of responsible institutions, sustainable, pro-active coverage of dissenting voices and balanced reporting was largely lacking, thus presenting a rather skewed and politically distorted picture.
Gatekeepers on the Spot?
The PPC report criticized the decision of media gate-keepers concerning coverage spots and focus, the external influence of other players like the Government Advertising Agency (GAA), professional conduct and the obvious polarization of party-affiliated politics within media establishments. The report further indicated that “media owners influenced agenda of their media houses. Majority were think-tanks for either Jubilee party or opposition NASA coalition. They offered their media assets to political parties as mouth pieces for party campaigns. They fiddled and meddled with editorial policies, which left journalists vulnerable and insecure. Journalists played along to save their jobs in the process breaching code of ethics and media laws”
The relationship between media and the government of Kenya through the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) was also a factor that contributed greatly to flawed media independence as highlighted in the report.
“The editorial content in MyGov cannot be edited by media houses to meet the set standards due to contractual obligation of no alteration of what the government has presented whether they are factual or not.” argued Erick Oduor, the Secretary General of Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) who was also party to the content development of the report. “This thoroughly affected the editorial independence of media houses to carry news articles that meet professional standards and code of conduct for the practice of journalism in Kenya.”
Stories the Media Missed
The Kenya Correspondents Association Chairman William Oloo Janak, partnering with the PPC media monitoring process, opined that the media failed to serve the broader national good, identifying and prioritizing key national issues and presenting, analyzing and projecting them in a manner that help in the country’s democratic transformation and in conflict resolution.
“Journalists on the ground filed credible information about the cases of brutality, killings and even rapes – including of children, but the media was seemingly feeble about accountability by the police and shied from publishing the figures, later choosing to go by the data from the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights”, Mr. Janak said.
The media, it would appear, was so swayed by political intrigues that it either ignored or negligibly covered other issues of interest, such as violence against women which was allegedly rife but unfortunately trivialized by the media.
Jane Godia, a senior Program Officer at the African Women & Child Features Service (AWCFS), argued it was a shame that local media only picked up on issues of violence and violence against women in particular after international media outlets highlighted this violation. “Violence against women and girls never made it to media headlines within local media and when it was covered, it was reported negligibly and covered sporadically” said Godia. “Women and children remained most affected and pictures of police invading homes and violating women including those who were pregnant were more visible in social media than mainstream media”, she added.
The media monitoring report indicated that despite the fact that media houses such as Nation Media Group, Standard Media Group, Royal Media and Mediamax declared they had committed significant resources to monitoring the elections and tallying the results as part of enhancing accountability and transparency, no tallies were ever declared, and instead they waited to project the contradictory and contested figures from the IEBC’s National Tallying Centre at the Bomas of Kenya.
It must be noted that the larger media situation in Kenya during the electioneering period was a source of much scrutiny and criticism. Social media spaces and Twitter in particular were extremely brutal in their verdict of media conduct, and various renowned bloggers and political Twitter activists repeatedly castigated the media for collaborating with the ruling political class to subvert democracy in the country.
None of the mainstream major media houses could attest to this, of course. Renowned journalists implicated in apparent “underhanded dealings” to discredit the opposition or vice-versa rebuffed all attempts at criticism. Today, however, the Cambridge Analytica revelations have confirmed the suspicion that they collaborated with some Kenyan journalists and media personalities to achieve their intentions.
One interesting point to note, however, are the events in January 2018, when in a dramatic revelation one of Kenya’s most respected senior journalists and former editor of Nation Media Group’s NTV, Linus Kaikai, made some damning revelations. Kaikai, who chairs the Kenyan Editors’ Guild, revealed the details of a meeting before the elections between President Uhuru and a team of senior editors at the State House, where apparently the newsmen and women were “warned” against being anti-government and threatened to muzzle any media house that reported unfavorably about the government. Much furor ensued after Linus’s revelations, but one significant point that vindicated the criticism that the media had in one way or the other been compromised. It is alleged that after this revelation, Linus was under so much pressure by his employers that he resigned from NMG in late February 2018.
When President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga shook hands on 9 March and declared their “brotherhood”, both of them alluded to the fact that the country is much bigger than the interests of an individual.
However, many skeptics did not take this declaration as a positive indicator, and instead dismissed it as political gimmick. So far, it seems, amidst ramblings between political parties and expansive politicking about whether the political marriage between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga will last, Kenya will continue to be embroiled in a political quagmire. Even though the two protagonists claim they will prioritize national reconciliation and ethnic cohesion, this kind of proclamation has been seen and heard in Kenya before, and many skeptics believe it is nothing more than a political gimmick ahead of the 2022 elections. Only time will tell.