Art of character assassination is harmful to our democracy
Respect institutions. This is, discernibly, the kernel of an 18-point interim statement for the election re-run in Kenya that the European Union Observation Mission (EU EOM) unveiled on September 14, 2017. The most revealing of the EU’S observations is that: “The persistent criticism of the integrity and neutrality of state institutions has negatively affected confidence in the election.”
Conceptually, by chance the EU advisory reveals what is, undoubtedly, one of the most lethal and enduring legacies of the 20th century Kenyan politics: the ominous rise of a malign art of smear and character assassination as the bane of its democracy.
An indelible feature of Kenya’s public culture, the manifestly ruinous art of slander of institutions, persons and organizations now controls what and how we think; what we read in the media, cyberspace and books; and how we vote and who we choose as our leaders.
As a weapon of politics, character assassination— broadly defined as a deliberate and sustained process aimed at destroying the credibility and reputation of a person, institution, organization, social group or nation—is neither new nor peculiar to Kenya.
As the edited work of Martijn Icks and Eric Shiraev, Character Assassination Throughout the Ages (2014), shows the art of smear has been the most lethal political weapon down history and today.
Globally, its preponderant rise in the 21st century is linked to the age of posttruth politics aided by the advances in communication technology. Inescapably, this has catapulted smear into the centre-stage of policy and intellectual inquiry signified by the formation of the International Society for the Study of Character Association (ISSCA) in July 2011.
Kenya is not new to the politics of character assassination. Generations of its political class have honed this art as an effective weapon to win political battles since the titanic ideological tussles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Kenya’s return to competitive multi-party politics in 1991 gave new impetus to slander as the weapon of choice in intra-elite power wrangles, turning democracy’s hosanna moment into an effective siege of institutions and personalities.
In the age of slander, intellectuals like the Kenyanamerican scholar, Makau Mutua, have become super snipers in character assassination in the pages of newspapers. The dirty work of character assassins has reached a fever-pitch after the September 1 Supreme Court ruling.
The road to the October 17 re-run is heavily mined with character attacks on individuals, experts, institutions and international observers based on a subtle mix of open and covert methods calibrated to capture state power by hook or crook.
As the EU Statement rightly observed, “undermining the independence of state institutions, including courts, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and law enforcement agencies threaten the rule of law, democratic order and effective governance”. It also precipitates political paralysis and uncertainty, which undermine the economy, foreign investments and livelihoods.
Since its controversial September ruling, the Supreme Court has been praised across Africa as a triumph of judicial independence. But since 2013, the Court has been under attack mainly from opposition stalwarts. After the Judiciary unanimously upheld President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in the March 4, 2013 presidential contest, the petitioner, Raila Odinga, accepted the verdict of the court but openly accused the seven judges of the Supreme Court of corruption.
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga was forced to deny rumours alleging that he took bribes to return a favourable verdict. On September 16, 2017, Mutunga accused losing political factions of blaming the Supreme Court instead of trying to unite the nation, arguing that “the court has become the punching bag for politicians who think that justice has not been done in their favour”.
But the Supreme Court is its own worst enemy. Its failure to give timely reasoned judgment to back its often draconian and far-reaching rulings has, expectedly, drawn the ire of the publics.
After September 1, sections of the legal fraternity worldwide and the Jubilee political class locally have rightly viewed the overturning of Kenyatta’s victory on the basis of so far undisclosed “irregularities and illegalities” as being tantamount to a ‘civilian coup’ against the will of the people.
Expectedly, the movers and shakers in the ruling party have decried Kenya’s reformed Judiciary as a den of “crooks” and judges as merchants of mafia-style justice. “I have always said, there is a problem with our Judiciary though we respect it”, said President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Attacks on the Supreme Court are likely to escalate after the release of the reasoned judgment of the four judges who voted to overturn President Kenyatta’s August 8 victory.
It is the IEBC, however, which has become groundzero of Kenya’s intra-elite wars. After the August elections, National Super Alliance (Nasa) leaders referred to the IEBC as being “taken over by criminals.”
Nasa has singled out IEBC’S Chief Executive Officer, Ezra Chiloba, for vilification, blaming him for “irregularities” cited by the Supreme Court even though the Constitution does not say the CEO runs the elections.
Nasa has even called for the UN to step in and oversee the re-run. Yet, ironically, before joining IEBC Chiloba was one of the UN system’s top experts on elections!
The EU Interim Statement reveals the acute vulnerability of international election observers to Kenya’s art of character assassination. Nasa’s bigwigs have called for the vetting of observers.
Sadly, keen to be seen as unbiased after the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling where they were seen as having “hurriedly praised the conduct of the August 8 elections”, external observers have swallowed line hook and sinker some of the strategies of rival political elites in the jostling for the control of IEBC.
A case in point is the hyped language of “stakeholder consultations” in the EU Statement, which inexorably strengthens Nasa’s power sharing strategy.
The political class should keep its hands off our democracy and its independent institutions!
___________________________ Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute and teaches at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi.
PETER KAGWANJA The road to the October 17 re-run is heavily mined with character attacks on individuals, experts, institutions and international observers.”