BY SHADRACK MUYESU
You may recall the devastating floods and mudslides that the North Rift suffered late in 2019. 49 Kenyans perished in less than 48 hours with entire families being wiped out. The story barely featured in the local press before it was eclipsed by more “important news items”, when it was the splash item on Al Jazeera for the entire period of the catastrophe. As a friend once noted, Kenyans love politics and that’s the kind of content they prefer.”
It made sense at the time, understanding our politics-crazy country, until a few weeks later when I finished reading a copy of Noam Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’. Then I realised, someone else makes the decision and it may be that Kenyans don’t love politics after all.
The supervening idea is that the average human being is a simple creature who finds pleasure in gossip, sensationalism and everything else that doesn’t educate. But not according to Chomsky. For him, we men are innately complex, born curious to understand and dominate life – we are made simple by social-economic pressures which condition us to be so.
Now, I am averse to politics and I despise politicians. In fact, I do not bother to vote and that has made me an object of ridicule amongst my peers who constantly remind me that my bread is only buttered because of politics. And they are right when one considers the level of compromise that goes into balancing the various interests in a highly differentiated Republic. What I denounce is the cult of personality Kenyans have come to define as politics.
Our excitement with this brand of politics is cultivated by politicians, who are averse to an informed and right thinking society, and fuelled by media who depend on the political elite for their survival. It’s a relationship that Chomsky goes at great lengths to explain in ‘Manufacturing Consent’.
Mass media houses are “an effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system supportive propaganda function through reliance on market forces, internalised assumptions and self-censorship and without overt coercion.” He describes five editorially distorting filters which these media houses apply when choosing what may be sent out to the public.
The first is profit.
Before they are anything else, large media houses are businesses. Subscriptions and sales alone can never bring in enough revenue to offset the large operation costs, leave alone bring in profits. The overhead is covered by advertisement money which leaves the outlet with little choice but to bend to an advertiser’s every whim. In our case, the biggest advertiser is government hence the reason our media houses can never be overly critical (of government). Instead, they’d rather provide the “political angle”. And for the few times they release a hard hitting piece, they only sing to that tune because there is a bigger fish paying the piper.
We must remember that these businesses are also owned by people. Being large profit- based operations, they must champion the interests of the owners whether they be corporations of controlling investors. It’s the reason a popular media outlet ran a touching tribute to the late departed president – Moi – without a mention of the atrocities of his regime.
How they source their news is also another issue. Herman and Chomsky explain that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidise the mass media and gain special access to the news by their contribution to reducing the cost of acquiring and producing news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become routine news sources and have routine access to the gates. Non routine sources must struggle with and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gate keepers.” You will see it every day in the choice of “experts” who come on TV. In Kenya, because of the central position that government occupies, politicians are permanent fixtures on headline shows where their job description is to drive home the government’s agenda.
Neither are the business and sports segments spared from these gate crushers. It’s accepted practice for captains of industry to make donation in return for an “insightful” comment that will tilt the markets in their favour.
Media houses are also haunted by the thought of damaging lawsuits. They go easy on dubious characters fearing the high cost of defamation claims. With the small man unable to justify his truths, it is the story of the power barons that prevails. It is an elaborate system of social control.
Applying Chomsky to our situation, it immediately becomes obvious what the ruling elite are trying to achieve with the BBI craze. On face value it is a timely intervention – but not when viewed in context. Both principals are the patriarchs of the foremost political families in the country. Both men oversee vast business empires accumulated on account of privilege – the Kenyattas are market leaders in the milk processing and hospitality industries while the Odinga’s are household name in the mining industry.
More importantly, the former also boasts ownership of a large media house whilst also being at the helm of the same government that other mass media outlets rely on for advertisement revenue. Raila on the other hand is the doyen of Kenyan politics. It’s in both men’s best interest that the status quo maintains.
BBI is not only a means towards an end, it is also a distraction from government incompetence and actual ground work being put in place to entrench their hegemony.
Follow the money
In an article elsewhere, I wrote that contrary to popular opinion that the president is a bumbling idiot well out of his depth – an image he works extremely hard at to maintain – he is actually a motivated leader serving the only interest that keeps in power –expanding the family business. In regard to the dairy industry, the Kenyattas have strategically bought off the opposition while destroying everyone else. We all remember the trips to Uganda earlier on in his reign where President Uhuru traded Museveni’s cattle and eggs for access to new milk markets. Not only so: there followed some controversial milk laws that would have driven the small scale retailer out of business. As it were, the SGR train is headed to the Delamare farm in Naivasha which, lo and behold, the Kenyattas have also acquired – at crushing expense to a debt-riddled tax payer.
They then shifted their attention to alcohol beverages. After they had obtained a significant stake in the leading brewer East Africa Breweries Limited, they turned to the competition where Keroche Breweries CEO Tabitha Karanja and Africa Spirits tycoon Humphrey Kariuki were arrested on dubious allegations of tax evasion. While this was happening, the Kenyatta-owned CBA Bank and NIC Bank merged without paying the requisite tax. In the media, it was whitewashed as a war against impunity.
All these things barely featured in the news and would have gone unnoticed but for the endeavour of some civic-minded Kenyans.
Add that to Uhuru’s promise to deal with the Judiciary and the purge that followed with attacks on Justice Warsame and Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu and the eventual the denial of critical funding to this critical arm of government, and a pattern comes into focus. Not only is the Uhuru Government working hard to discredit the Judiciary but it is also working overtime to take over the oversight body, the Judicial Service Commission.
Today, all the guns are aimed at Deputy President William Ruto – not a saint himself but a formidable opponent nonetheless and the biggest threat to the Kenyatta, Odinga and Moi hegemony. Leading the onslaught is the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the office of the Public Prosecutor – the same offices that created the poisonous maize scandal which they could not justify, and who are guilty of bungling cases through poor investigations and poorly prepared charge sheets. When the cases inevitably collapse, Uhuru has always ensured that the Judiciary takes the fall.
But if the scheme is to succeed, their plans must gain acceptance with the public. It is critical that the politicians hammer home the important points and that there are cameras to see it.
“BBI good…Judiciary bad…Ruto corrupt…the fight against corruption”, repeat it enough times and Kenyans will believe it. Slowly but surely, and also because local television offers no alternatives, their minds are conditioned to accept “the truth”. The BBI initiative must be viewed in this context and this great manifestation of Chomsky’s work treated as the first stage of election theft.
One criticism of Chomsky’s is whether his theories could survive the present state where the Internet has taken over conventional media. But if the case if Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica debacle is anything to go by, his conclusions remain just as valid. The hosts of the domain will determine what is posted therein. And as media outlet, with its vast reach, Facebook has replaced government as we know it as the purveyor of dubious interests.