Mistrust, distrust, and fake news: Kenya’s 54 million ‘experts’

Mistrust, distrust, and fake news: Kenya’s 54 million ‘experts’

By Peter wanyonyi

We  are  a country of experts, we Kenyans. Perhaps the most know-it-all country in Africa – if not the world, Kenya is brimming with self-proclaimed authorities on everything under the sun. A quick trawl through Kenya’s social media presence reveals a colourful coterie of self-appointed “public figure” accounts and “social influencer” profiles, all claiming to have special, insider-only knowledge of this or that matter, usually something to do with politics – for we love our politics to ridiculous extents. Indeed, there is just one thing we love more than our politics, and that is our tribes. And since politics in Kenya is invariably tribal, a general election is guaranteed to drive our social media experts into a frenzy, as they excrete a mixture of political crap and tribal nonsense, combined and brewed into a heady concoction of social media stupiditis guaranteed to impress none but the most stupid among us. Who, unfortunately, are not insignificant in number.

The just-ended presidential election was a fairly simple affair, on the surface of it. In one corner was Raila Odinga, a political chameleon whose ever-changing colours reflect his tag of being a political prostitute: Raila was against the late President Moi, then was with Moi, and then again against him. Raila was then with Kibaki against Moi and Uhuru, before changing sides to be with Uhuru and Ruto against Kibaki. An election later, and Raila was against Uhuru and Ruto – but, come 2018, he was suddenly with Uhuru and against Ruto. As he switches sides, so do his political parties of convenience and their colours – from the red of KANU to anti-Kibaki orange to Azimio blue, he has donned all colours and fronted all manner of outfits, with the same result: electoral failure. 

In the other corner was the Machiavellian William Ruto, whose win the Supreme Court upheld following a petition by Raila’s Azimio. That Ruto was once a mere underling in Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) must especially gall for Raila and his fanatical following. Late at night, when they are done shouting themselves hoarse on social media and declaring that they and only they know everything about Kenya’s politics, when the sun has gone down and the cows have come home, Raila’s fans must rue the day they cheered Ruto’s defenestration from ODM. That Stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone, and as Raila sobs into his whiskey glass somewhere in Karen, Ruto’s lot are dancing late into the night. 

In a manner of speaking.

The conduct of the election appeared fairly routine. Kenyans are so used to excitable, energetic elections that this one looked absolutely dour and boring in comparison. There were no spectacular murders to speak of, although a couple of electoral commission officers disappeared and turned up dead – may their souls find peace, and their killers find justice. Tribal clashes did not break out either, and no one fled to a neighbouring country to avoid ethnic pogroms. Indeed, were it not for the broken Swahili and the uncouth manners, one could easily have mistaken our elections for Tanzania’s – uninteresting, unremarkable, and entirely predictable. Until the results started streaming in!

Grandstanding

The electoral commission and its chair conducted the elections with unassuming competence. The required forms were scanned and uploaded to the IEBC portal, from where they could be downloaded by anyone. A number of IT Security experts pointed to some apparent gaps in the portal’s security, but by Kenyan standards it was almost space-age-like. But as election night wore on, a curious phenomenon began to manifest itself. Observers relying on the Kenyan media for vote tallies noticed that the newsrooms started off enthusiastically downloading and tallying presidential results forms – in Kenya, only the presidency and the governorship of Nairobi matter, the rest of the electoral contests are small potatoes – and every Kenyan TV station had running tickers showing the votes as they added up in each candidate’s column. But by about midnight Kenyan time, the TV totals slowed down to a crawl. By 3am, they had stopped moving altogether, with the counts of Raila and Uhuru locked at about 49% each. At this point, the news media evidently became too nervous to continue displaying the vote tallies that they could see on the IEBC portal, and Kenya’s social media experts kicked into gear.

Raila’s fans, sensing defeat – they had been there before, this was Raila’s fifth election – kicked off the rumours, claiming this or that foreign entity had alerted them to “rigging” of the election. Fanciful tales and wishful thinking took over the Raila bit of Kenya’s political cyberspace. The IEBC Chairman, Wafula Chebukati, was variously claimed to have fled to Britain, or to Uganda, or to South Africa – depending on which pro-Raila loudmouth one listened to. 

Ruto’s fans, not to be outdone, began celebrating what they saw as the inevitable crowning of their man as president. They taunted the Raila fans mercilessly, dancing on Azimio’s political grave while gleefully pointing at Raila’s unbroken losing record as a presidential contender. Even the smaller candidates got in on the act, with the pot-smoking Wajakoya’s supporters pointing out that his 1% of the vote would have tilted the race decisively in favour of one or the other candidate.

The grandstanding and gloating aside, though, the relaying of election results was a glaring failure, and the media are to blame. In true Kenyan style, each media house went about reporting the tallies on its own. The results were chaotic. Viewers would tune into one TV station and see their candidate leading by several percentage points, only to tune into another TV station and find their candidate trailing by a huge margin! It did not help matters that the IEBC’s own tally was miles behind the slowest TV station, and the overall consequence of this chaos was, well, chaos.

Kenyan elections are winner-takes-all affairs, and there’s always significant tension when the results start streaming in. Kenyans have zero faith in electoral commissions and the institutions of the State, which is not a surprise given every one of Kenya’s presidential elections since 1992, bar 2002, has been contested bitterly in court afterwards. Media outlets are trusted more than State institutions, and our TV stations, in particular, missed an opportunity to build upon that trust.

To begin with, Kenya’s leading TV stations should have negotiated a combined coverage arrangement with the IEBC. Under this arrangement, they would have formed an inter-outlet team of trusted senior reporters to front the reporting of election results, while forming a mutual pool of tallying desks to download, validate, tally, and verify election results as they came in. To this add a shared constituency and county reporting team to verify the relayed results to the tallying desks, and we would have seen a swift and accurate relaying of the election results to the country, with media houses calling the election in unison and thus bringing all rumours and fake news to a quick end. 

But we are Kenyans, and we do not like doing things the easy way. And so, the distrust and the mistrust sowed many years ago by the election rigging of Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki will continue to define our electoral experiences. Our self-appointed “bloggers” will continue to exploit this chaos with their high-sounding nonsense, resulting in never-ending tensions and inconsolable anger and sorrow when, as must happen, one or the other candidate loses the election despite half the country expecting otherwise. That is how it is for Kenya: there are 54 million of us, all of us experts. In everything.

It is the Kenyan way! (

—  The author is an information systems professional.

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