The campaign revolution — on the road with Kenya’s candidates

The campaign revolution — on the road with Kenya’s candidates

Dressed in starched white shirts, coatless and with red ties to match, their shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, Kenya’s new President and Deputy President strolled out of the doors of State House to name a portion of their Cabinet on April 23.

It was a gloriously sunny afternoon and if the cast of characters taking part in the ceremony had been different, one would have imagined they were in the White House Rose Garden in Washington.

Where Kenyans had grown used under previous administrations to having major appointments announced through a press release sent from State House in the evenings (as close as possible to deadline leaving print editors with little time to analyse and forcing them to simply report the new names in the next day’s papers), here they saw something entirely different.

President Uhuru Kenyatta flanked by Deputy President William Ruto read out the résumés of the new picks, who were then invited to address the gathered media team before stepping back into the mansion behind them.

The ceremony was an illustration of just how much the victorious candidates in the Kenyan election on March 4 borrowed from Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.
One of the supreme ironies of the Kenyan election was that Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto – who painted their main opponent Raila Odinga as a stooge of the administrations in London and Washington – run an election operation that was taken straight from the American President’s campaign playbook.

They spoke the language of hope and optimism. “I Believe” was the slogan plastered on campaign merchandise on display everywhere – from billboards on highways to the reflector jackets of boda boda (motorcycle taxis) which have become the main modes of transport in rural Kenya in recent years.

The teleprompter was to be found tucked away at the corner at every major campaign function.

A quip by Mr Ruto, the 46-year-old running mate to Mr Kenyatta, 50, that their Jubilee Alliance comprised a “digital” team running against their “analogue” rival, Mr Odinga, 67, came to define the messaging around the campaign.

The quote gained resonance because Kenya, like many African countries, is in the middle of a transition from traditional extraterrestrial to digital television.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have both been indicted for crimes against humanity at The Hague for their alleged roles in the weeks of bloodletting that followed the last election in 2007, in which about 1,100 Kenyans lost their lives.

But they turned those indictments into an election issue that played in their favour in a communication strategy whose scope and scale had rarely been seen in Kenya. In several key cases, they called it right in their bid to outmanoeuvre the rival Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) alliance headed by Mr Odinga.

They understood that with the country’s ever younger voting population, the old methods of campaigning could no longer do.

Two thirds of Kenya’s population is below the age of 30. And although traditional forms of media such as radio, TV and newspapers still dominate in terms of breadth of coverage, Kenya has one of the highest rates of internet penetration in Africa, with 41 per cent of the population holding a mobile or computer subscription, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya.

The Kenyatta campaign saw two uses for social media. There was the conventional approach where the outlets were used to put out official campaign material.

But social media outlets, and Facebook in particular, served a more important role. Because such forums are not mediated by editors, they were used to spread propaganda about the process that led to the pair being indicted in The Hague, rallying their core supporters into believing there was a conspiracy afoot and that it was not a purely judicial process. Such content would not easily have been conveyed, say, in the newspapers in the crude form in which it was put out on social media.

Another key facet of the Kenyan campaign was that it continued the gradual globalisation of the political consultancy business.

In the same way that American political consultants have fanned across parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere and flamboyant Brazilian ‘marqueteiros’ are to be found pulling the strings in elections across Latin America, the 2013 elections saw the phenomenon spread to East Africa.

In this case, both Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta hired in expensive western PR consultancies which attempted to impose message discipline to their respective campaigns.

Many other aspects of the campaign, though, remained unchanged. There were few negative ads and campaign posters were largely drab affairs.

But the 2013 election will be remembered as the nation’s first ‘digital’ campaign. The election results were disputed because of questions over whether Mr Kenyatta fairly achieved the 50 per cent mark to clinch the presidency in the first round. But there is no doubt that his Jubilee Alliance gained more votes overall than the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) which in Mr Odinga had, on paper at least, a far more substantial and serious candidate than the Jubilee Alliance.

Mr Kenyatta’s victory owed in no small part to his team’s realisation that social media platforms now play virtually the same role as newspapers as the agenda setting media which generate content for the much more widely available TV and radio platforms.

Murithi Mutiga is an editor at Kenya’s Sunday Nation. He is an inaugural winner of The David Astor Journalism Award.