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

Sunday Herald - - THE WORLD -

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

Photograph: Getty

A po­lice­man runs past burn­ing houses in the Mathare dis­trict of Nairobi dur­ing elec­tion vi­o­lence in 2007

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.