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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Betrayal in the Kenyan Media

In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, Betrayal in the City, the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don jailed for speaking his mind: "We have killed our past and are busy killing our future".
As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.
Many had already fled their homes in expectation of violence and in the capital city, Nairobi, many have not gone back to work since voting on Tuesday, leaving its normally bustling and noisy Central Business District feeling like a ghost town.
Small protests had been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centres, throughout the week, which had led to clashes with police and, regrettably, at least 5 deaths so far. Given the ongoing unrest, that figure is set to rise even further.
However, you wouldn’t know this watching most of Kenyan media -considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. TV screens are full of pictures of celebrating Kenyatta supporters and political pundits analyzing the election outcome. Kenyans are having to turn to international media and to friends and family to get a sense of what is happening.
Throughout the week, while dutifully covering the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media was in the main determined to avoid any mention of trouble. Instead, it has opted to regale the country with colorful stories of the Githeri Man, Kenya's new internet sensation.
On social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. As they have been doing the whole week, gangs of twitterbots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage and even threatening to shoot them.
Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hang on tenterhooks as politicians bickered over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.
Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of pre-empting violent protests in the event the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism”. But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.
By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop the Kenyan media houses pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for broadcasting blatantly illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election).
In return, it seems the media has sold its soul. The first sign came very soon after the closing of the polls when one TV channel, KTN NEWS, gave the results of what it called an exit poll. The curious thing about that poll was it does not seem to have asked the voters how they voted, which one would assume is the point of an exit poll.
But worse was to come. Going to bed with government seems to have led to a wholesale abandonment of their journalistic duty to independently verify the results of the election announced by the IEBC. A Court of Appeal decision in June had made it clear that results of the presidential election declared at polling stations and constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered by IEBC mandarins at the national tallying center in Nairobi. That opened the door for the media to run independent tallies and, despite largely empty government threats of having their licenses cancelled, even call the election. And indeed, many already had this capacity. In January, Samuel Macharia, the owner of Kenya’s largest TV and radio network, Royal Media Services, told the Senate that his network had independently tracked records at every presidential election since 1992.
Yet, it appears that this did not happen. Today, all the press is crowded at the national tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, hanging on every word that issues from the IEBC. They have been content to run its unofficial tallies rather than get the official counts and tallies from the lower levels. And worst of all, as the politicians and IEBC officials haggle in Nairobi over which numbers are correct, the media is happy to play along rather than spare us the drama by simply heading down to the 40,000 polling stations where, even now, the official and final results are posted outside for all to see.
Rather than preaching peace, the Kenyan media has been earning its 30 pieces of silver by ignoring and editing out citizen frustrations in order to maintain a fa├žade of normality. But there’s nothing normal about this silencing, the delegitimization of those, however many or few they may be, who feel the need to express their discontent through peaceful marches, or by ignoring of those who have died at the hands of the police.
Imbuga’s play has an ignominious character who uses his closeness to the supreme leader to secure corrupt advantages and to sell out his countrymates. At the end of the play, Mulili’s duplicity is laid bare and he is executed, signifying the passing of the oppressive order and the birth of new hope. Similarly, Kenya’s media needs to get out of Kenyans’ way so they can get down to the business of saving their future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Deathly Afraid Of Presidential Elections

Another election. Another failure of systems. Another dispute, another anxiety laden wait. Another bout of violence. The routine has become depressingly familiar. Over the past week, Kenya has been at a standstill, holding her breath as votes were counted, announcements made and politicians bickered over the results, praying these would not summon the spectre of 2008.
Kenyan presidential elections have always been contentious - a legacy of our history dictatorship. Within a decade of independence from Britain in 1963, the country had been transformed into a de facto one party and as long as the centre was not challenged, other aspects of a competitive, democratic system were allowed to function.
This meant that for the first 30 years, while parliamentary races were fiercely competitive -with more than half of incumbent Members of Parliament regularly thrown out- at the presidential level, they remained a placid affair. Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, as heads of the party were “re-elected” unopposed at every turn.
A year to the 1992 elections, however, everything changed. Following a sustained two-year campaign of protests and international pressure, Moi was forced to reverse a decade-old change to the constitution which had formally banned political parties other than his own. This led to the first ever competitive race for President, which set the tone for all presidential contests to come -it was marred by large-scale, ethnic-based, violence, irregularity and outright theft.
The 1992 polls were preceded by government-instigated “tribal clashes”, in which 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the expansive Rift Valley. Just months before the 1997 elections, politically instigated violence killed over 100 people and displaced an estimated 100,000. While both 2002 and 2013 election campaigns were marked by several incidents of violence, with no incumbents running, the violence was somewhat limited.
At first glance, the violence of 2007/8 seems to sit pretty well within this picture. But, on closer inspection, there are fundamental differences. All previous large scale electoral violence was instigated controlled and perpetrated either by the government or with its acquiescence. The 2008 violence was the first time Kenyans confronted the prospect of a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, with the opposition also able to mount significant violence.
Kenya’s electoral violence had previously been controlled and limited in geography and scope. Though the 2007/8 was not the worst the country had suffered, it provided a glimpse of a possible and very scary future, where the threat of violence did not stem primarily from the state, but from one’s neighbours and friends.
Kenya has always been a violent country, one silently at war with itself. The colonial state is at the center of that conflict. The various communities and fractions of communities that make up the nation are constantly fighting to control the state which ironically was created to facilitate others preying on them. At independence, rather than reform it, the clique that inherited it, which includes both Uhuru’s and Raila’s fathers used it to enrich themselves and their friends and relatives at the expense of the rest of society.
Throughout it all, as Matt Carotenuto writes, the state has learned to weaponize the language of “peace” to avoid scrutiny of its actions and a discussion of the past. “From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.”
As Kenyans settle down to the daily grind, there is a danger that they will once again be urged to as Kenyatta put it in 2002 “forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions”. But that would be a mistake because, if there are any lessons to be learnt from Kenya’s history, it is that a true “common front” will not be forged through “forgetting he past” but by facing and dealing with it.
Kenya is thus has a choice. The country can either try to recreate the brutality that its colonial state wielded previously and attempt to force the genie back into the bottle, or it could actually attempt to confront and deal with its traumatic past and to begin to create a state that works for all.  Kenyatta appears to have settled for the former, judging by the viciousness with which post-election riots have been put down – at least 24 people have been shot dead and many more, including a six-month old baby, badly beaten.
What prevails in Kenya now, what has always prevailed, is not peace but rather, an uneasy calm -a ceasefire of sorts. But it won’t last, nor be translated into a deeper peace unless the country has the courage to fix its frayed national fabric.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Game of Thrones - Kenya Edition

I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series centering on the struggle by various political dynasties to succeed to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms in the fictional land of Westeros. Now in its seventh season, the various plot twists and turns, the rise and fall of the fortunes of characters keeps me glued to the TV whenever it’s on. Missing any of the weekly episodes, or even having to wait months for the next season to start is an anathema.
In a way, my angst is reflected in the reactions this week to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip the Presidential Debates. Politics is Kenya’s version of Westeros, complete with skullduggery, moral nudity, incestuous liaisons and, of course, a throne all covet, fear or manipulate.  We revel in the gladiatorial contests for power between scions of political dynasties, in the intrigues and betrayals, in the gore and mayhem. As I have written before, and as was reiterated by Dr Wandia Njoya and Dr Peter Kagwanja in this week’s edition of the Cheche show on Citizen TV, our politics is a show put on by politicians that has little to do with addressing the everyday struggles of ordinary folks. In fact, it is meant to distract attention from those very problems.
There is an implicit compact. We will be content to ignore the fundamental questions and issues facing our polity so long as our politicians do the dance. The rhetorical contests of election campaigns, manifestos and TV debates are the stuff of this performance which plays out on our TV screens and on political dais across the nation. It is this compact that President Kenyatta violated.
What was promised was a no-holds barred, blood-on-the-floor cage match with the media providing the stage and acting as both promoter and referee. After weeks of priming and waiting, we had taken our ringside seats, enjoyed the curtain raisers in the form of the debate between the three of the other six candidates and were waiting for the headline event which was to pit the President against his main challenger, Raila Odinga. Thus the disappointment and anger was palpable, even within supporters of his Jubilee Party, when the reigning champion failed to turn up.
What we instead got was a tepid performance of shadow boxing, where Raila, alone on stage, ducked, weaved and parried the moderator’s poor attempts to pin him down. In the end, we learnt little that was of value, that we didn’t already know. But that is not why we were there. Few in the audience were particularly interested in the intricacies of policy and in understanding how NASA or Jubilee would pay for the fantastical promises of brand-new stadia, roads and free everything. We wanted blood and gore and broken teeth and spilled guts.
This is show we had paid for with our stolen taxes and our enduring poverty and oppression. It is what we had sacrificed our pensions, health and children’s futures for. And we’d been had. We were left feeling short-changed and vented our rage in bars, meeting places, TV screens and on social media, always careful to couch it in the acceptable language of accountability.
We have, we will keep saying disingenuously, been denied the opportunity to question our leaders, to hold them to account, to understand the issues on which the election campaigns are supposedly being waged. But this is not true and we know it. The manifestos are online if we want to interrogate them. Nothing stops us debating the issues and demanding that the media reflect them in the questions they pose to candidates and politicians and not be fobbed off with non-answers. As Dr Kagwanja asked, "What are Kenyans lacking?" The truth is we had been denied a show, a performance.
What we should ponder is less whether the President should have turned up and more why we engage in this charade. Politics and political debates should be about much more than entertainment and should definitely be about finding real solutions to our very real problems. Not a distraction from them. We already have Game of Thrones for that.