THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE AND FAKE NEWS HANGING OVER KENYA
A KEY ELECTION OFFICIAL FOUND MURDERED, A BITTER SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN, AND THE THREAT OF BLOOD ON THE STREETS. KENYA GOES TO THE POLLS IN A GENERAL ELECTION ON TUESDAY, STILL REMEMBERING THE TERRIBLE PRICE PAID DURING ANOTHER PRESIDENTIAL POLL BACK IN 20
HE had been missing for three days before his body was found. According to the official autopsy report released just days ago, Chris Msando probably died a painful death, having been tortured before he was murdered.
“There’s no doubt that he was tortured and murdered … the only issue is who killed him and why,” said Wafula Chebukati, the chair of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), speaking to reporters outside Nairobi City Mortuary a few days ago.
On Tuesday, Kenya goes to the polls in a presidential election. Right now the killing of Chris Msando is just one more reason why the country is holding its breath as the spectre of election violence hovers over the east African country.
This was always going to be a closerun race for the country’s leadership and currently it appears to be going right to the wire.
One poll last week put the two main contenders, opposition leader Raila Odinga and incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, on 49 and 48 per cent of the votes respectively. This will be the second time that the two go head-to-head, but on this occasion with the opposition more united.
Given the closeness of the race, how the ballots stack up in this bitter political contest now matters more than ever.
As the election board’s head of information, communication and technology, Chris Msando’s job, before his body was found in a Kenya forest, was to oversee the live transmission of election results – making him the man who officially puts out voting figures to the Kenyan public.
To say that Msando’s role sat within a contentious area of Kenya’s election contest would be a considerable understatement. Most political activists and indeed the voting public are more than aware that this was one area that could be used to rig next Tuesday’s presidential and parliamentary polls.
For the moment there is no evidence that Msando was involved in any such activity or indeed that his murder has anything to do with the election, but few in Kenya doubt there is some connection.
“It is telling that the key person who was perhaps holding very vital passwords has been eliminated at this delicate time,” said Musalia Mudavadi a member of the main opposition, National Super Alliance (NASA), echoing the thoughts of others in the country.
“Chris Msando’s brutal killing was an attempt to drive a dagger into the heart of the forthcoming election.”
For his part, President Kenyatta has urged Kenyans to have faith in investigators probing the murder of Msando and for the public to refrain from speculation about the motives for his killing.
“This is not the time to allow a tragedy such as this to divide us, to turn brother against brother,” warned Kenyatta last week.
But the president’s calls will do little to allay fears of a repetition of electoral violence that just a decade ago, during another presidential election, saw clashes that left more than 1,200 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes and the country’s economy brought to a standstill.
Such is the scale of public jitters in Kenya that in the wake of Msando’s murder, one of Kenya’s key military spokesmen was forced to go on national television last Tuesday evening to deny reports he was missing. Some media outlets suggested he had been abducted after leaking details of election-related security.
Everyone senses that the stakes are high in this election. As one Kenyan who works for an international aid organisation summed up the mood a few days ago to the Sunday Herald: “We all have a sense of excitement, tension and anxiety.”
Kenyans will head to the polls on Tuesday knowing that the elections will be closely followed not just across Africa but also throughout the world.
Over the last few weeks in the capital, Nairobi, and in other towns, cities and rural communities, election posters have replaced consumer goods advertisements on street billboards, as politicians step up their campaigns to win over the 19 million registered voters.
This is the sixth presidential election since Kenya, a country of more than 45 million people, embraced a multi-party democratic system in 1992.
The dark memories of the 2007 election still haunt Kenya, when violence was rampant after that poll.
Kenyan politics are still largely dominated by ethnic affiliations. Since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1963, ethnicity has shaped contests over land, power and resources.
In recent years, Nairobi has granted additional autonomy to Kenya’s regions in an attempt to limit the cut-throat winner-takesall mindset of the country’s politicians.
But because it is still highly advantageous to control the central government and the spoils that come with it, electoral
competitions are often fierce and personal. That much has been evident these past few weeks and it has intensified over recent days as polling looms.
Many still have doubts over the likely fairness and credibility of the ballot.
In the eye of the political storm is the newly-constituted Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which has been accused of being unprepared for the polls. Some have contested also whether the voters’ register is clean.
Meanwhile, ballot papers are yet to be printed due to a dispute over a printing tender, and civil society organisations have also argued that failure to give timely information to the public by the IEBC has generated a rumour mill of dangerous speculation.
The rumour mill is matched with the emergence of what has sometimes been dubbed “fake news” and other intense social media campaigning.
One 90-second attack advertisement entitled “Raila’s Kenya 2020” depicts an apocalyptic vision of the country in the future, complete with clouds of black smoke rising from overcrowded slums and hundreds of terrified civilians fleeing as their neighbourhoods are razed to the ground by shadowy men in uniform.
In all, the video has been viewed 480,000 times on Facebook. While the Kenyan press has sought to the get to the bottom of its origins, it remains a mystery, and the account used to upload it is not officially associated with any political campaign. Its message, though, is an outright attack on opposition leader Raila Odinga and his NASA party.
“On paper, a developing country might seem an unlikely place for fake news, which is mostly disseminated online, to impact an election. But, in many ways, Kenya is among the ripest countries in Africa for a successful misinformation campaign,” wrote Nanjala Nyabola, a Nairobi-based political analyst in the respected current affairs journal, Foreign Policy.
Distrust, he pointed out, runs deep in Kenya, scarred by successive bouts of post-election violence since 2007-08. That level of distrust was amply revealed after reports also surfaced last week that a firm that worked for Donald Trump and which once claimed ties to a pro-Brexit campaign group is now reportedly working for Kenya’s incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta.
On its website the firm, Cambridge Analytica, has a simple mission statement saying it “uses data to change audience behaviour”.
THE company, heavily funded by Robert Mercer, a US businessman who helped to pay for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and is also a major donor to Breitbart News, purchases and compiles demographic data on voters.
In May, The Star newspaper in Kenya reported that Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party had hired the firm, and a month later the same newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica was working from the seventh floor of the party’s headquarters in Nairobi. While social media users might still be a minority in Kenya what is clear, says Nyabola, is that “a highly sophisticated disinformation campaign is under way, including slickly-produced video content, attack ads, and fake websites spewing false claims about candidates”.
Sophisticated it might be, but in the past when Kenya’s elections have turned nasty and politicians don’t get their own way, it’s usually on the streets where the real bloodletting takes place. All too often violence is easily stoked up by political henchmen paying supporters within impoverished slum communities to take to the streets.
Suffice to say that with over 61 per cent of Kenyans in cities living in slums, this makes for a potentially large and disruptive force.
At least 40 per cent of Kenya’s people still live below the poverty line, with high rates of youth unemployment and corruption still plaguing the country.
In Nairobi’s giant sprawling slum districts like Mathare, Kibera, Korogocho and others, many live on less than a dollar a day. Short of being totally destitute or dead, these places are the last stop for the millions of people who live there.
Accurate figures are elusive, but as many as 700,000 people are known to be crammed into Mathare alone, in an area two miles long by one mile wide. Violence in these slums is endemic and in times of tension such as Tuesday’s election, they can so easily become volatile ethnic and party political frontlines.
“If election-related violence is to happen in Nairobi, then most likely it will occur in impoverished slum neighbourhoods like Mathare and Kibera,” said Maurice Amollo, the Nairobi-based head of the Kenyan Election Violence Prevention Programme, run by the humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, which has its European headquarters in Edinburgh.
For 18 months, Mercy Corps has undertaken the programme to lay the groundwork for peaceful elections next Tuesday and beyond.
As part of the scheme, 26 integrated electoral security committees were established in Nakuru, Nairobi, Nandi and Kisumu Counties, all set up in potential hot spots to help mitigate, mediate and prevent election violence from erupting or spreading out to other regions.
“The committees bring together players from different sectors including business, the police, youth leaders, elders, women’s groups, civil society groups and others,” said Amollo.
In practical terms Mercy Corps workers might provide these committee members with anything from airtime to make media appeals to transport in order to access areas deemed to be potentially problematic.
The whole scheme was built on the back of a successful four-year youth empowerment programme, which reached 2.5 million young people across two regions of Kenya, encouraging them to be agents of positive and peaceful change in their communities, and achieve a greater voice and representation in civil society and policy making.
Many have pointed to the youth vote being crucial in Tuesday’s election. Around 80 per cent of Kenya’s population is under 35, according to one study, and people aged 18 and 35 make up 51 per cent of its 19.6 million registered voters.
Both candidates know this and are campaigning hard to win the youth vote. On every level the young are crucial to the outcome of Kenya’s elections, be it making their voices heard through the ballot box or as the footsoldiers of cynical politicians should election frustrations boil over on to the streets.
Despite the fact that young people are a key voting bloc in the country, Raphael Obonyo, convener of the Youth Congress of Kenya, is doubtful that their numbers alone will be enough to swing the vote.
“Although their numbers, interest and agency could determine the election outcome, youth are boxed into the various ethnic and party enclaves, so they might not be able to consolidate their numbers as a constituency,” Obonyo said.
As Tuesday’s vote beckons, Kenya for the moment remains on edge, but some are confident that things will play out satisfactorily.
“Even if there is violence I think the centre will hold and I don’t see a situation to compare with 2007-8,” said Maurice Amollo of Mercy Corps optimistically.
It’s easy to think of Kenya’s elections as being an isolated event with no real wider significance, but that would be wrong. Next week’s vote – its conduct as well as its outcome – matters not just to Kenyans, but also very significantly to the rest of the African continent and the world at large.
Given its role as a nascent democracy, regional economic powerhouse and security ally, Kenya remains vital to the West’s interests in Africa. The outcome of Kenya’s election matters home and away. For now, a nation holds its breath. Only after Tuesday will we know if Kenyans will be able to breath a sigh of relief.
Tensions are rising in Kenya after the murder of Chris Msando, above
A policeman runs past burning houses in the Mathare district of Nairobi during election violence in 2007