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Kenya and the art of voter demotivation

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Friday, 21 May 2021 16:16

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) greets opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition after addressing a news conference at the Harambee house office in Nairobi, Kenya 9 March 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

For a few furious weeks in April this year, Kenyans online took on the IMF, campaigning against a scheduled $2.3bn loan to Kenya. It began as a rather ordinary online petition - started by one Jefferson Murrey (who signed the campaign as ‘Weary Kenyan Taxpayer’) - which garnered more than 200,000 signatures in 48 hours, but quickly morphed into an even bigger digital campaign, with Kenyans flooding the comments section of the IMF’s Facebook page, urging the organisation to cancel the loan.

Every post or live event on the IMF’s page was attracting a dozen hundreds of comments under the hashtag #StopLoaningKenya. They argued that funds from previous loans had either been stolen or misappropriated by the government, and had only led to more taxation and more corruption. The decentralised yet organically coordinated campaign went even further, with the IMF’s app on Google Play Store receiving a barrage of one-star ratings from Kenyans, along with even more comments and negative reviews.

In Kenya today, most critics of the political establishment are not beaten, jailed or bribed with money and jobs. They are, instead, driven out of their minds, forcing them to careen into frustrated unhinged rants, thus discrediting themselves.”

Kenyans online, and on Twitter especially, are famously known for their eagerness to brawl – many have fallen to the stinging barbs of Kenyans On Twitter (KOT) – but this was particularly intense. It didn’t matter that trolling the IMF in this way was a bit misguided, as this article helpfully explained, but understanding the intricate workings of the Bretton Woods institutions was besides the point. To understand why Kenyans would camp on the IMF’s Facebook page for weeks on end, hijacking each and every post, and even tanking the institution’s rating on Google Play Store, you have to appreciate the shift in the political climate over the past few years that has slowly but comprehensively stifled legitimate avenues of dissent and drained their oxygen, so to speak – and thus left Kenyans with only a few options to grasp some agency and express their political ideals.

The Kenyatta-Raila handshake

The first shift occurred in March 2018, when the two main political rivals – President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – declared an unexpected détente in what is now colloquially referred to as ‘The Handshake’. Seven months earlier, the Kenyan supreme court had nullified a presidential election that it said was highly irregular, sending the ruling party – and especially the President – careening into fits of rage and promising retribution against the Judiciary. The main opposition alliance – led by Raila – boycotted the repeat poll. In January 2018, Raila swore himself in as the ‘People’s President’, leading to the arrest of one key opposition figure, who was subsequently charged with treason.

But less than two months later, Kenyatta and Raila shook hands, smiling before news cameras, and promising to work together. That handshake, though touted as necessary to diffuse the tension from the election, was also just the latest iteration of political alignments and re-alignments that the Kenyan political elite has cynically and opportunistically pursued. In the last four elections, for example, the same characters have been in diverse political formations, dismantled and reassembled so swiftly as to render political parties – and the party system of democracy itself – meaningless.

Switching sides

In 2002, it was Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto on one side, against Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki; in 2007, Odinga teamed up with Ruto while Kenyatta supported Kibaki’s re-election bid; in 2013 it was Kenyatta having Ruto as his running mate, this time against Odinga (Kibaki had served his constitutionally mandated two terms and so did not seek re-election); 2017 had the same formation as 2013, but in 2018 The ‘handshake’ upset things again by now pitting Kenyatta and Odinga on one side, with Ruto seemingly left out of the arrangement… if your head is spinning, well so are Kenyans’, who with every election cycle have to mentally and psychologically contend with this musical chairs of candidates.

Demobilising

Ultimately, the handshake was incredibly effective at demobilising the opposition. After a highly charged political season in 2017, including with the Kenyan judiciary handing out one of the most consequential judgements against an incumbent president, just over half a year later, it all seemed to collapse on itself, leaving the Kenyan electorate in a daze.

Before the dust had settled, Kenyatta and Raila began campaigning for a constitutional amendment dubbed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) – that was ostensibly aimed to put an end to election tensions once and for all – but in reality, would fundamentally alter the spirit of the 2010 constitution that had been designed to limit executive power. One of the BBI proposals was to create more executive posts and re-assign power to the centre, all the while without proper public participation. From the onset, it was presented as fait accompli: for the past three years, Kenyans have been bombarded with breathless stories about the political intrigue and drama of the BBI, and ultimately, how ‘unstoppable’ it was.

“What the Handshake/BBI did was rob Kenyans of their voice and agency as political actors,” says Scheaffer Okore, a policy strategist and governance expert. “It was a form of high-level misappropriation of power – that the powerful elite would create a document so brazenly selfish and in their personal interest, and then say that they were acting for ‘peace’ and ‘unity’.”

The second strategy in stifling dissent comprised of demobilising the civil society. In the East African region, Kenya has been known for having a vibrant civil society sector, but the tide began to turn in earnest in 2013, when the Jubilee administration of Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto set their sights on NGOs, particularly those involved in democracy, governance, and human rights work.

The onslaught on the civil society

The government has attempted to restrict the amount of funding that NGOs can receive, with a 2013 bill proposing a cap on foreign funding – 15% of an organisation’s total budget. Even more egregious was a requirement that all funding for NGOs be channeled through a government body which would decide which organisation got funding and for what purpose. The bill was narrowly defeated in Parliament.

But the onslaught didn’t stop there. Since 2013, the civil society has been referred to as ‘evil society’ and portrayed on social media as opportunists working in the interest of Western powers. This seemingly state-sponsored, digital trolling continues today, with caricatures of prominent activists like Boniface Mwangi portrayed as money scavengers frequently trending on Twitter.

“I’ve been a journalist since 2006 and I’ve never seen this level of personal attacks,” says Yvonne Okwara, a senior journalist and news anchor on Kenya’s Citizen TV. “Prior to 2013, for example, if a journalist said something that the government didn’t like, their media house would receive the flak. But over the years, it’s become intensely personal, intended to severely isolate and delegitimise the individual.”

Data from Afrobarometer corroborates this: in 2009 – just after post-election violence that shook the country – 32% of Kenyan respondents said they “always” had to be careful about what they say regarding politics. That fraction rose to 44% in 2013 and 2015; but in the latest survey conducted in 2018, more than half (54%) of respondents said they always have to be careful.

The effect of all this, more broadly, has been a chilling of the political climate, achieved by ignoring or diverting legitimate grievances, and consistent information warfare and digital attacks. Even more remarkable – and sinister – is that this chill has been achieved without mass arrests, pogroms, or open persecution. Charles Onyango-Obbo, a senior journalist and editor,  put it searingly in an opinion column in January 2020: “In Kenya today, most critics of the political establishment are not beaten, jailed or bribed with money and jobs. They are, instead, driven out of their minds, forcing them to careen into frustrated unhinged rants, thus discrediting themselves.”

In the end, Kenyans are boxed in by two menacing forces: one from above that has effectively defanged the political opposition and made a mockery of party politics – yet kept the media and public sphere busy with intrigue – and one from below that has quietly narrowed the space for dissent and made even moderate critics feel like they are howling into the wind, while outspoken ones have had their credibility and reputation constantly attacked.

Kenya has repurposed politics so as to limit the political agency of citizens, said a damning 2019 report on state capture in Kenya by the African Centre for Open Governance (Africog). In other words, citizens are actually not able to defend themselves and their interests by political means, and “the procedural elements of democracy are used to hollow out its substantive commitments whilst keeping the diplomatic respectability that is conferred by regular elections.”

In this context, the furious digital campaign against the IMF could be seen as an attempt to reclaim a space for Kenyans to express their frustration and sense of agency, in a country where real and legitimate participation of citizens in democratic processes is limited.

Still, there has been one glimmer of hope: on 13 May, the high court declared the BBI unconstitutional and illegal, issuing a permanent injunction against the bill and declaring that the president had overstepped his mandate in attempting to amend the constitution. Predictably, commentators aligned to the ruling coalition are already issuing veiled threats of consequences against the judiciary, and the fight may be longer yet against an administration that has a track record of ignoring court orders.

“The ruling is a portal of what can be salvaged democratically in this country – that the people and their voice can still matter, even for a moment,” Okore tells me. “I was listening to the ruling and I felt like I could breathe, finally.”

Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Harvard University Nieman Fellow based in Nairobi, Kenya. She has written on a wide range of subjects and her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and The Elephant (Kenya). Currently, Christine is the curator for Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public-interest storytelling.

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