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Local media coverage of the 2013 Kenyan elections downplayed acts of violence and bordered on self-censorship despite the fact that social media reflected a deeply politically and ethnically divided society. The new Kenyatta government has now embarked on a charm offensive to co-opt the media

On Sunday 10 March 2013, the day after Kenya’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), declared Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of Kenya’s hotly contested presidential election by a slight margin, the outspoken writer Binyavanga Wainaina published an article in Britain’s ‘Guardian’ newspaper that seemed to reflect the jubilant and defiant mood of at least half the electorate. Wainaina echoed the Kenyatta-led Jubilee Alliance’s rallying cry: ‘Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,’ Wainaina wrote. ‘The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.’

Wainaina may have later regretted making such a hasty judgement, particularly as mounting evidence of electoral malpractices emerged, he spoke to many Kenyans who had been subjected to a barrage of warnings by Western diplomats about the consequences of electing Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, both of whom had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity related to the violence that followed the disputed 2007 elections.

Kenyatta’s stridently ‘anti-imperialist’ campaign, which was clearly intended to discredit the ICC as racist and anti-African, and Wainaina’s warning to diplomats that they should not interfere in Kenya’s internal affairs, were preceded by alarmist reports in the international press that suggested that Kenya was on the brink of the kind of violence witnessed after the 2007 elections, when more than 1,000 people were killed and some 600,000 were displaced. A CNN report showing four ‘militia’ preparing for war in the Rift Valley was quickly dismissed by Kenya’s prolific online community as a fabricated work intended to malign the country’s reputation. Kenyans, it seemed, were determined not to allow the international media to portray it as a basket-case that could not hold peaceful elections. Under the Twitter hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN, Kenyan scientist Calestous Juma posted: ‘BREAKING: Foreign reporters clash in #Kenya amid growing scarcity of bad news.’


To the other extreme, the local media displayed extreme caution and restraint, bordering on self-censorship, in terms of how it reported the election. When gangs ambushed and killed police officers and attacked a polling station in Kenya’s troubled coast region, where a group calling itself the Mombasa Republican Council had been making demands for secession, and had even threatened to boycott the elections, the story was barely reported in the local press. Similar acts of violence and disturbances in other parts of the country were also downplayed, perhaps in the belief that reporting these events would trigger copycat incidences elsewhere, or would make the violence appear more widespread than it really was.

Media houses had issued guidelines before the elections discouraging the use of sensationalist reporting. This may have been a response to a 2008 Commission of Inquiry report that implicated the media in engaging in hate speech during the 2007 election period and its aftermath. The unwillingness to report or investigate disturbing events had the impact of ‘dumbing down’ election-related coverage to such a degree that when the IEBC chairman announced a technical glitch in the newly-acquired biometric voter register system that was hastily purchased to make the tallying process more efficient and transparent, few media houses thought of investigating the cause of the malfunction, or its implications on the election results. The Kenyan media’s ‘professional surrender’ and self-restraint, wrote British journalist Michela Wrong in a ‘New York Times ‘blog devoted to the Kenyan elections, ‘reveals a society terrified by its own capacity for violence.’

The media had decided not to ‘disturb the peace’, even if it meant under-reporting electoral malpractices. This ‘peace messaging’ was also premised on the notion that a politically unstable Kenya was not good for local businesses and foreign investors, and that remaining peaceful (non-violent) was good for the economy. Kenyans had paid a heavy economic price after the 2007 elections when the economy nearly ground to a halt for nearly two months, which impacted not just local businesses, but exports to neighbouring countries.


Underlying the anti-Western rhetoric was a sub-text that cast Western donors and donor-funded civil society organisations (CSOs) in the same mould. Prominent democracy and governance CSOs that had questioned the legitimacy of ICC indictees running for the presidency and deputy presidency were labelled by some commentators as foreign stooges intent on disrupting the peace and undermining the country’s sovereignty.

Kenyatta and his deputy Ruto employed a clever strategy that used the ICC as their main selling point – their candidature became more appealing precisely because they had been indicted. By presenting themselves as victims that were being used as a ‘sacrificial lambs’ by their opponents, they turned the election into a ‘life-and-death struggle.’ In many of their speeches, the duo (dubbed Uhu-Ruto) branded the election and their intended victory as a ‘referendum against the ICC,’ implying that a victory would dilute the ICC’s charges against them as the people of Kenya would have endorsed their leadership through the ballot. This view was later endorsed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who described the Uhu-Ruto victory as a ‘rejection of the blackmail by the ICC and those who seek to abuse this institution for their own agenda.’

Kenya’s civil society, which had been at the forefront of the call for reforms throughout the 1990s and had pushed for a new constitution after the mayhem of 2007/8, were now being labelled ‘gratuitous rabble rousers’, dancing to the tune of their masters, the Western donors that funded them. Kenyatta’s inaugural victory speech on 9 April 2013 served to reinforce the message that perhaps civil society organisations had failed to read the mood of at least half the country, which was ready to ‘move forward’ and embark on the path of peace, prosperity and self-reliance. (The ‘peace’ that was supposedly maintained, however, is not reflected in social media, which Kenyans have been using to hurl insults at each other. The ethnic bigotry displayed in some of the postings reflects a country that is still deeply divided ethnically and politically.)


Commentators and analysts were deeply divided on how to view the Uhu-Ruto victory. Some saw it as a demonstration of self-determination. Alex Perry, writing for ‘TIME’ on 9 March 2013, the day the IEBC was to announce the election results, stated that ‘a win for Kenyatta would represent the most stunning articulation to date of a renewed mood of self-assertion in Africa.’
Others felt that it reflected failure on the part of civil society organisations (CSOs) to connect with Kenyan aspirations. Writing in ‘African Arguments’ a few weeks after the Supreme Court had dismissed an election petition by the Prime Minister and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and had declared the election free and fair, Kenyan researcher Kennedy Opalo noted: ‘At some point in the election cycle they (CSOs) lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.’

This sense of betrayal was evident in the prominent activist and lawyer Makau Mutua’s popular weekly column in the ‘Sunday Nation’ of 21 April 2013, in which he described the deep loss felt by him and his fellow civil society activists as ‘an existential moment.’ Fearful that CSOs might not survive a Kenyatta government, he stated that civil society activists ‘feel betrayed by a population they’ve always fought for’ adding that ‘engaging’ and ‘dialoguing’ with the new government would only serve to legitimise it, a notion he found hard to stomach.

However, it is possible that the ‘language of donors’ used by Kenyan CSOs failed to resonate with people at the grassroots. Lawyer and political scientist Wachira Maina has in the past accused donor-funded CSOs of ‘intellectual dependency’ on the West:

The language of political reform in Africa is a language generated by donors. Terms like ‘empowerment’ and ‘aid-re-engineering’ are part of the lexicon of the aid business, this language figures prominently in the proposals of local NGOs and in their presentations at seminars. One wonders whether this language can be used among civil society groups in rural Kenya. Even more worrying are suspicions that this dependency on donor language is perhaps part of a larger intellectual dependency. [1]

One former opposition activist who seemed to agree with the idea that CSOs alienated their constituencies is businessman Ngunjiri Wambugu, founder of Kikuyus for Change, a lobby group established in the aftermath of the violence of 2007/8 that sought to bring about inter-ethnic harmony and understanding. Wambugu served in presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s 2013 election campaign, and was seen as a Kikuyu renegade, along with the likes of lawyer/activist Maina Kiai and anti-corruption crusader John Githongo, who were often painted by Kenyatta supporters as having betrayed the Kikuyu cause. (The Kikuyu or Gikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, have held three out of four presidencies since independence in 1963.) In what appeared to be an unexpected about-turn, Wambugu, in his regular column in the Star newspaper on 28 May 2013, urged Kenyans to accept the new government and to view the Kenyatta-Ruto victory – which appeared to unite the warring Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups – as an indigenous solution to the ICC problem:

‘ICC must then accept that the African continent has its own traditional system of resolving the kind of conflict that the first world calls ‘crimes against humanity’. Cattle rustling, inter-ethnic violence and other such situations where violent death, rape, etc. happen on a regular basis tend to be sorted out through candid conversations in traditional settings, over liquor and meat, and solutions are found that work for all parties. Sometimes these solutions include an exchange of goats and camels before everyone ‘moves on’… This is how Africa solves its problems…As for the rest of us, especially some of Kenya’s civil society, we must stop crying louder than the bereaved and ask ourselves whether while we are still agitating for justice for 2007, the victims might have ‘moved on’. [2]


Was the Uhu-Ruto alliance an ‘African solution to an African problem’, one that involved traditional conflict resolutions mechanisms, such as the giving of ‘blood money’ in the form of animals, or symbolic marriages and unions between members of warring factions? Or was it a ‘ceasefire’, as one prominent civil society activist put it?

Many analysts insist that the Kenyatta-Ruto victory was simply a mathematical probability. They argue that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition. Others, however, believe that the alliance between the two politicians was forged to prevent bloodshed between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group and Ruto’s Kalenjin, both of which had experienced disproportionate violence and displacement during the 2007 election, particularly in the Rift Valley Province. It was feared that the 2013 election would be at least as bloody as 2007 because the issues surrounding land that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin and vice versa still had not been resolved. ‘Though tribe was the watchword in this election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal’, according to James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. ‘Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.’

John Githongo, former Permanent Secretary who is renowned for blowing the whistle on the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) administration led by President Mwai Kibaki in 2005, says that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of much of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multi-party elections in 1992 – have still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. ‘Those who doubt his (Ruto’s) grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now.’

In an interview with this author in June 2013, Wambugu said he made the decision to support the Kenyatta government when he realised that civil society was “still stuck in 2008”, and had not adapted to the major shifts that had taken place, including the adoption of a progressive new constitution in 2010. ‘Civil society organisations have not woken up to the fact that the ground has shifted. They continue to agitate as if ICC is the only way. Yet their roles have changed. They should be watching the constitution, not the leadership.’
Mainstream media analysts glossed over the fact that both Kenyatta and Ruto were once associated with the repressive regime of former President Daniel arap Moi, who ran the country with an iron fist from 1978 till 2002. Ruto was plucked out of obscurity to work for the notorious Youth for Kanu 92 (YK92) team that Moi established to garner the youth’s support for his party prior to the 1992 election. His allegiances shifted throughout his political career – he was once a leading member of Odinga’s ‘Pentagon’ dream team challenging Kibaki in the 2007 elections.

Kenyatta came with the baggage of being his father’s son, the founding president Jomo Kenyatta who came to be associated with various injustices, including land grabs and assassinations, in the post-independence era. Like his father, and despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, he represents the urbane, cosmopolitan Western-educated elite that has benefitted from the status quo, and which espouses Western liberal values. Like Ruto, he is also a protégé of Moi, and was the flagbearer and presidential candidate for Moi’s Kanu party during the 2002 elections, which he lost to Mwai Kibaki. His victory in 2013 was seen by some not as the birth of a new order, but the re-establishment of the Moi era.

The attack on CSOs as imperialist lackeys seemed disingenuous and hypocritical, considering that Kenyatta’s family has vast business interests that are linked to Western capital. Kenyatta even hired a London-based PR firm – BTP Advisers -- to manage his 2013 presidential campaign and public relations.


Meanwhile, after threatening all manner of “consequences”, including sanctions and ‘minimal contact with ICC indictees’ if the two candidates were elected, Western countries, notably Britain, quickly recanted their positions. This about-turn was most aptly demonstrated by an invitation extended by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Kenyatta to attend a Conference on Somalia in London in early May 2013. (However, the much-anticipated photo opportunity with the Prime Minister did not materialise even though the two were reported to have met privately).

Later that month, Ruto attended a high-level conference on Africa’s development in Tokyo, where he rubbed shoulders (and took photos) with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, in attempt to adjust to the reality of a Kenyan government headed by people suspected of being war criminals, had the previous month issued revised guidelines to the UN secretariat on how to deal with ICC indictees. The guidelines stated that UN officials could interact ‘without restrictions with persons who are the subject of a summons to appear issued by the ICC and who are cooperating with the ICC.’ These revised guidelines were no doubt formulated bearing in mind that Kenya’s capital city Nairobi is the global headquarters of two UN organisations, and the regional base for most of the UN’s programmes and agencies.
The United States took a more cautious approach. President Barack Obama skipped Kenya on his 2013 Africa tour, but the US government has still not made an official statement about whether or how it would handle the Kenyan leadership. Given that Britain and the United States have huge security and economic interests in the country and in the Horn of Africa, (more so since the threats posed by Al Shabaab in Somalia), it is likely that a compromise position will be arrived at, and that normal diplomatic relations will resume if Kenyatta and Ruto are acquitted by the ICC or if their cases are dropped.

Meanwhile, dissenting voices within the media are slowly being co-opted through a new charm offensive by the Kenyatta government that includes breakfast meetings at State House, ostensibly to make the presidency more accessible to journalists and to make the government more media-friendly. These meetings, reminiscent of the White House’s annual dinner for correspondents, symbolise a cosier, less confrontational relationship between the media and the state, a situation that commentator George Ogolla described as ‘muzzling the media by consent.’ However, it also points to a disturbing trend where the line between propaganda and news is increasingly being blurred by the president’s savvy – and extremely well-oiled – public relations campaign.

*Rasna Warah is a columnist with the ‘Daily Nation’, Kenya’s leading newspaper. She has also authored and published four books ( and can be followed on Twitter @RasnaWarah

. Maina, W. ‘Kenya: The State, Donors and the Politics of Democratisation’ in ‘Civil Society and the Aid Industry’ edited by Alison Van Rooy, London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1998: 162.
2. Wambugu, N., ‘The Kenyan ICC Situation: A Clash of Civilisations?’, ‘The Star’, 28 May 2013.



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