In the first of a series on the Kenyan Elections, LSHTM’s Gemma Jones and J.Omondi, a Kenyan candidate for county ward representative in Nyanza Province wonder about pink elephants, black swans and double-speak.
The world is watching and the Kenyan national elections on 4 March will be a landmark – whatever the outcome – for the African democratic process. It is 50 years since Kenya’s independence (“Uhuru”) and 5 years since the December 2007 post-election violence that rocked the nation. This will be the first national election run under Kenya’s new constitution which has redrawn the political demarcation of the country, creating 47 counties, senators, governors and a new system of devolved governance. It will be run by an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that has never run a major election before. And, to add to the fun, one of the two only real contenders for the presidency is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first President, who also happens to be due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague together with his running mate, William Ruto, just a matter of weeks after the election. (Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society discussed this issue on his blog with great insight).
A prevailing theme in the election build up has been talk about “proverbial pink elephants” and “black swan events” referring to both ignored truths and unexpected outcomes (i.e. the anticipated election result) that, in hindsight, appear obvious. Last month, one of these elephants was the constant creation and recreation of new coalitions with names that invoked grand new dawns but represented the same old politicans (“Jubilee Alliance,” “Alliance For Real Change,” “Coalition for Restoration and Democracy,” “Armani” (Peace), “Restore and Rebuild Kenya”). This month there was another classic elephant example. The day before Kenya’s first ever televised Presidential debate, a newspaper cartoon by Kenyan satirist Gado depicted the candidates at their podiums while a prehistoric elephant loomed behind them.
Labelled the ICC question, this elephant highlighted the international community’s main concern: the significance of Kenyans democratically electing a leader who may – just as the new government is supposed to get going – be standing in the dock facing charges of crimes against humanity at the Hague for events surrounding Kenya’s last election. Or as Uhuru’s main opponent, the Luo tribe’s figurehead, Raila Odinga wryly pointed out during the debate: “Trying to run the country by Skype?” Or, perhaps worse, what would it mean if, in April, Uhuru is found not standing in the dock?
On 11 February, we, Gemma (an anthropology PhD student at LSHTM) and J.Omondi (a Kenya county ward representative candidate running in Nyanza Province) both spent the evening glued to the first ever live Kenyan Presidential debate. Gemma watched via Youtube in the UK, simultaneously following real-time commentary on Facebook of Kenyan friends in the diaspora ( A typical post was: “Odinga!!! How can he go on and on about sanitary towels instead of how they will distribute resources? ARGGGHHH!!!”). J.Omondi watched in Kisumu City with his sister while taking a welcome break away from the demands of the village campaign trail in the heart of Luoland, Nyanza Province.
Initially, it did seem like a milestone. The very first question by moderator Linus Kaikai of Nation Media Group was starkly labelled. “Question 1: Tribalism.” (Typical follow-up question: “The rivalry between the Kikuyu and Luo tribes is the core of the rivalries issues. Are you picking it up from your fathers….?”) The second was “The ICC question” directly referring to the aforementioned elephant cartoon. Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru then picked up the baton in the second half asking “Where are all the crocodiles and hyenas who are stealing public money? Why can we not find them?” We were almost convinced we were watching a real sea-change. “Yawa!” we both laughed in surprise on Skype the next day. “Uhuru was so presidential. It was like he was channelling Obama.”
But then, we were sadly reminded, by both our own experiences in local politics and by a Citizen TV panellist commenting on the debate of a crucial point: the power of double-speak.
“A typical Kenyan thing,” she sighed.
“The people speaking don’t actually expect you to believe what they say.”
And so in this election the room can be crowded with elephants, both speaker and audience can be looking directly at them, commenting on them even, but they can still trample us all.
However, we don’t want to be too pessimistic. This is, after all, an exciting time for Kenya. It could – and should – be epoch-changing.
So then the question becomes what can/should we write about the elections, given that local, international and social media spheres need to take some responsibility for inciting and exacerbating the post-election violence that spread across Kenya in 2007/8?
Earlier this month Gemma went to a Kenya Election Media Briefing put on by the London Africa Media Network and the Commonwealth Journalists Association. There, via video-link, the Director of Public Communications in the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communication gave a heartfelt appeal to both the international media and Kenyan diaspora using social media. She appealed to them to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility, raising a special concern about the impact of negative viral coverage: “It is hurting us.” We know, from our own experiences, how angry people on Facebook can be about Kenyan politics and how difficult it is to separate real stories and images from the fake.
In light of the above we decided to share with you here some stories from J.Omondi’s campaign that we hope will show, in a nuanced way, how some of these national “elephants” are playing out on a much smaller stage. J.Omondi is not running for President, MP, Senator or Governor but for county ward representative, the most local of all politicians. He is vying to represent a ward of 28,000 people with just 9000 registered voters in one far corner of Luo Nyanza, Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s (ODM) homeland and political stronghold. Our hastily-drawn re-interpretation of Gado’s cartoon which headed this article shows the challenge of riding out some of these big questions and issues at the village level. But there, the elephants are different. For example, the ICC question is mute/moot because people are convinced Raila Odinga will win. A more pressing elephant in this place is the effect of the recent failed ODM party primaries in the election process itself and the challenge of convincing people to go out and vote at all on 4 March. Finally, we coloured our elephant pink because in this campaign process at times it has felt (like the pink elephants of hallucinations) that things don’t make any sense at all. At other points, the ride is exhilarating.
Social Science background reading to the 2007 post-election violence
Election Fever: Kenya’s Crisis: Special Issue (2008) Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2 (2). Free full text access available online, Taylor and Francis: [http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rjea20/2/2].