Manifestos, while colourful, will not influence the voting patterns

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By Barack Muluka

With the Jubilee and National Super Alliance (Nasa) manifestos for the August 8 elections out in the last week of June, it was expected that the presidential competition would start being issue-based. Unfortunately the level of debate between the two main contestants for Kenya’s most powerful and most prestigious office has remained depressingly low. The conversation remains hugely in the territory of invective and ad hominem verbal diatribe.

To a great extent, you are reminded of the proverbial children in a marketplace shouting at one another, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance. We sang a dirge and you did not cry.”

At the very best, the debate descends to scrambling for credit for government projects. President Uhuru Kenyatta will come out exuding joy over the standard gauge railway, or progress on the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lapsset) only for his nemesis Raila Odinga of Nasa to rebuke him for taking credit for a project that was the brainchild of the much-troubled grand coalition government in which he shared power with President Mwai Kibaki following the botched elections of 2007.

Other preposterous areas of engagement between the two sworn antagonists have included various road projects under the Jubilee government, the limping Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Project and social transfers of funds to support the poor elderly. This comic drama did not fail to find its way to the forums in which the two manifestos were launched. Deputy President William Ruto told the gathering that the Jubilee duo was doing so well that Nasa leaders were at pains to copy everything they are doing. The Nasa manifesto, he predicted, would be a carbon copy of theirs. Nasa, for their part, chided Jubilee for absence of originality and shoddy implementation of ideas they have taken from them. It does not seem to matter that governments have successive and residual responsibilities and that these will include carrying on with projects conceived under an earlier regime.

When the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) government came to power at the end of 2002, for example, it found in place an elaborate educational support programme that the Kanu government had negotiated with a cocktail of foreign development partners, worth close to Sh9 billion support for books for primary and secondary schools. President Kibaki and his government glowed in the glory of this initiative whose implementation kicked off, as had earlier been planned, only a few months after they got into power. They gloated over it as one of the manifestations of the free primary school education that they claimed to have introduced. Neither Kanu nor Narc found it necessary to lay claim to the origins of this programme. The support has since died, following poor management and alleged misappropriation of the funds. The Kenya Government was forced to refund Sh4.5 billion to the British Department for International Development (DfID) six years ago, as a result of British umbrage at misuse of project support funds.

No less confounding has been Jubilee leaders’ thin skin and the thought that the opposition should not criticise their failures, regardless that they are only perceived or real. The President will, therefore, throw up a confounding public tantrum regarding allegations on corruption in his government. Even where he seems to admit that there is corruption, he desperately bursts into declamations to the effect, “So what do you want me to do, surely?”

But this is when he is guarded and keeping good control over himself. In less secure moments, he has called Odinga appalling names, from a witchdoctor to a madman. Addressing diverse audiences in his native Mt Kenya region, President Kenyatta has called upon them to help him send “the madman and witchdoctor” to retirement in August, so that he can “spend the rest of his life in the Lake Region, eating fish.”

The negative ethnic overtones in the President’s scolding of his adversary are unmistakable. The Luo people of the Lake Victoria Basin are renowned as connoisseurs of fish as a gastronomical item. In the early coming together of present day Kenyan tribes in the late 19th Century, the Central Kenya communities were not particularly known as eaters of fish. Even now when they are beginning to break with tradition, fish does not easily discover its way to the dining table. The reference to the man, the lake and the fish is therefore intended to be an ethnic slur. And it is matters of ethnicity and the slurs around them that seem to be largely informing the formations around the General Election.

Very colourful things have been said in the Jubilee and Nasa manifestos. Yet it is most unlikely that these will drive the voting patterns. Few Kenyans read manifestos. In any event, even a cursory glance at the documents shows that they are cast in inaccessible idiom to a majority of the voting public. The macro and micro economic concepts that constitute the thrust of the substance are even more obscure than the language in which they are packaged. Even if they intended to read – which few Kenyans do at the best of times – the majority would still not understand. The manifestos become useful only as potential policy and programme platforms, if the owners are serious about pursuing their promises to the public in the post election dispensation. What seems more certain, however, is that Kenyans are going to vote for their tribes and their tribal leaders.

In the wake of the International Criminal Court (ICC) proceedings against them beginning in 2010, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, were quick to appreciate the reality that they would either survive together or perish separately. Accordingly, they schemed to come together to denounce Odinga as the person behind their woes in the international arena. They generated apocryphal narrative that Odinga had plotted to throw them into foreign jails because he was afraid they would beat him in a free and fair election. The narrative gained good traction with President Kenyatta’s Mt Kenya communities and his deputy’s Kalenjin people. They turned out almost to a man and woman, to vote for them. Addressing their supporters in his home turf of Kiambu a few weeks ago, President Kenyatta bragged, “We were elected by the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu.

We must speak the truth.” Elsewhere in Kakamega, the same week, the President told a largely Luhya crowd, “We have come here to ask for your votes. If you so wish, you can vote for us. But if you don’t want, it is just as well. It is not a must for you to vote for us. Even the last time you did not vote for us. But we still won. We will use the same razor blade as we used the last time.”

In the end, it is not the manifestos and the issues that matter. It is the ethnic formations and how the crowds are galvanized to come out in huge numbers to vote for the tribe, or the formation in which the tribe finds itself, courtesy of the tribal kingpins. The leaders have been looking for emotive issues around which to rally the tribes. President Kenyatta and Ruto tried to resurrect the ghost of the ICC, while campaigning in Nandi and Uasin Gishu Counties last month. They alleged that Odinga planned to take them back to the court in The Hague, in the event that he won the election. This fear mongering worked well for them the last time. It seemed, therefore, a useful balloon to try again. It does not seem to have worked well, however, and intelligence sources are understood to have advised that it should be dropped.

Biased referee

The electoral authority is itself another campaign issue, paradoxically. Where the authority should usually be a trusted independent arbitrator, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has found itself in the Nasa crosshairs time and again.

Sometimes it has been about the manner and place in which presidential results should be announced. The High Court sitting in Nairobi ruled in April that the results declared at the constituency cannot be varied, unless by a court. The IEBC did not seem to like this at all. It therefore went to the Court of Appeal, which threw out the appeal last month, on the same grounds as the High Court had upheld. That the election could be rigged has itself become a campaign issue. As we went to press, controversy raged about the award of ballot printing tenders to the Dubai-based Al Gurhair Printing and Publishing.

Without exception, the altercations have been caustic, with the possibility that they poison the supportive publics on both sides. They tend to reek of deep-seated animosities that suggest little affinity with the question of the moment. President Kenyatta and Ruto, in particular, speak with hostility that goes beyond normal political difference of opinion and competition. Even the casual observer gets the impression that this seems to be a matter of life and death, perhaps with deeper triggers and drivers than meet the eye. As they tear each other into pieces, therefore, the two sides rarely, bring issues to the campaign platform.

And there are many burning issues around which an election campaign and the decisions about it ought to be built. The economy has performed disastrously, despite the government bragging of a 5.8 percentage growth in 2016. There is very little of this to see.

The job market is depressed. This is despite the Jubilee manifesto boasting of a total employment increase by 5.9% annually. The truth of the matter is that there have been many layoffs and closures. Even the banking sector and leading blue chip companies have had to cut down the work force. Leading supermarket chains are in trouble. The shelves are empty, right across the country. Workers have been laid off in droves. Some branches have been closed. If it is true that the economy is performing well, then something must be awfully wrong with the distribution of the benefits. This concern ought to be at the centre stage of political and economic conversation on the campaign circuit. It has not come out clearly.

Obscene graft

Occasionally spoken about by the political opposition is the cost of living and shortage of essentials. Images of Kenyans scrambling for maize flour at outlets are common in the social media. The situation is made worse by unconfirmed speculations that the food may have been mopped up from the local market and shipped into the high seas by opportunistic politically connect individuals. It has not escaped observers that the government claimed to have imported the maize within three days, from Mexico. According to the Sea Travellers Organisation, Cedros Island – which would be the port of departure in Mexico – is 11,964 nautical miles from Mombasa. Travelling at the speed of 10 knots per hour, a ship would require 49 days and 20 hours to make it from Mexico to Mombasa. If it came from Salina Cruz, it would take 55 days and 15 hours. The very least would be 40 days and 12 hours from Veracruz.

Realising that they had been caught with their pants down, state officers swiftly changed the story. The maize now came from South Africa. Now Cape Town is 2,509 nautical miles from Mombasa. A ship would take 10 days and 11 hours to travel from the Cape to Kilindini Harbour. And so the story had to change again. Another government official now said that the maize was discovered somewhere in the high seas. Someone just bumped into some people, idling about with 450 000 bags of maize in the high seas. They were just gallivanting about the waters, possibly sipping rum, and looking for just about anybody willing to buy their maize.

This narrative speaks of corruption in government, which should be another election issue. If anything has been consistent these past four and a half years, it has been the story of corruption. There was the 250 billion shillings Eurobond saga. Although the story eventually filtered away, the state never quite came clean on this. The government never explained clearly or convincingly where the money went. A flighty opposition has failed to make political mileage of this, much the same way it only casually mentions the NYS scam in which close to Sh2 billion was looted through the Ministry of Devolution – the figure is now said to be Sh20 billion. Those suspected to have been behind it are sitting pretty, with some looking poised to make a comeback, sanitised through the ballot box. Even within their home constituencies, theft of public funds does not seem to be an issue. All that matters is that this person is one of us. If he is a thief, he is our thief.

Drama of thieves

The drama of thieves has, these past few weeks, played itself out very comically when the government claimed that the opposition was enjoying funding from corrupt individuals who had looted public coffers. The opposition has come out in strong defence of the said individuals, wondering together with other Kenyans why the government cannot arrest such persons, since the state has all the instruments of arrest and public redress in such situations. In a case of poetic justice, some of these people have previously worked closely with President Kenyatta and DP William Ruto. The question many are asking is whether they only began being thieves after they fell out with Kenya’s Number One and Number Two.

The electorate itself remains very tribalised and it can only be expected to filter issues through tribal blinkers. Whether they are hungry or well fed is not a priority to the Kenyan voters. Their tribe is a lot more important. The same applies to theft and corruption, as well as the state of the economy and half a dozen other things that determine election outcomes elsewhere in the world. On this basis, ballot papers will be cast in the next few days.

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