Parselelo Kantai watches as NGOs, the media and the state rally together to stage a peaceful takeover of power in Kenya. The top priority of the recent elections, he observes, was not a faithful determination of the will of the people, but the maintenance of peace and stability.
An exchange of pall-bearers
9 March 2013. The text message came through at about 2:45 am: “Depression beginning to sink in… so sad… the Jubilants are singing in the street.” It was DM, the ex-model who had taken to blogging. The message took more than a moment to sink in. We had been drinking. For the past five days, my living room had been turned into a makeshift newsroom, a bunch of foreign hacks using it to dispatch daily updates on the presidential elections kindling to their papers. We had filed our last reports for the night a few hours before. Now, among the wine bottles, the beers and a single malt that now sat low in the bottle, we were on something of a vigil, circling in an endless round of talk about the elections.
My last piece had already given the first round to Uhuru Kenyatta. The tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya had shut down just before midnight, leaving us with a sense that the race was far from over. Uhuru Kenyatta may have won the first round, but none of us in that room expected him to win it outright. We had switched off the TV for the first time in possibly 120 hours; Franco and TPOK Jazz were making their way through a long number.
But DM’s message had finality to it, the kind of news that came in the aftermath of a tragedy that assumed mourning and tightly gathered knots of people chewing over what had happened in little whispers.
I switched on the TV and watched the world begin to turn slowly on its head. Every station carried the same blazing message: “MR PRESIDENT!!” In the studios, there was relief and triumph. Uhuru Kenyatta had crossed the “50 per cent plus 1” threshold, winning the 2013 presidential election in the first round. Beaming anchors surrounded by analysts and experts, all possessed of wearily triumphant smiles, the relieved victor’s look at the end of a marathon, were adding their two cents to the ticker-taped slug line of the victory declaration.
The millions who had gone to sleep soon after IEBC commissioner, Yusuf Nzibo, had closed the tallying centre for the night, would wake up to what in effect was a peaceful takeover of power – a bloodless coup.”
There was frenetic talk of a new era, of Kenya now standing proud among the comity of nations, having beaten all expectations by running a peaceful election. There were vox pops, live interviews from noisy bars and dimly-lit streets around the country, all interspersed with cuts of the final result. In my notebook, the figure I scrawled from the TV screen was: Uhuru Kenyatta – 6,173,438; Raila Odinga – 5,340,586. These are figures that changed again over the next 24 hours.
There was nothing among the assembled studio punditocracy to suggest puzzlement, uncertainty or even the kind of caution expected of a victory declaration made in the dead of night; made, in fact, after the closure of the national tallying centre and the suspension of results announcements. Five years ago, the killings had started at sundown, soon after Mwai Kibaki’s swearing in at State House, an inauguration so chaotically rushed, the organisers had forgotten to play the national anthem. Then, the broadcast media, beaming the unfolding events live, had captured the collective sense of shock at the travesty. What was different this time around, was the media’s body language. In the studios, what appeared terribly important was the steadfast refusal to ask even the most obvious questions. The studio chatter appeared determined to communicate a sense of normalcy.
A board with the final results appeared on the screen again, accompanied by that deadeningly cheerful elevator music the TV stations had been subjecting us to all week.
“Hold on, there’s something odd about those numbers. Look at the bottom of the screen: the presidential tally shows 12,2 million. All the other results show a total tally of 10,4 million. They’ve stolen it but they can’t add!” It was William, a veteran of several electoral heists, alerting us to what would become the central issue of the election dispute.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) numbers did not add up. The figures being beamed from the IEBC’s national tallying centre through the media houses showed a yawning discrepancy amounting to about 1,8 million votes between the total presidential vote tallies and the tallies of votes for the other five elective seats up for grabs – the senate, the gubernatorial, parliamentary, and women and county representatives. The question of those numbers would haunt the IEBC for many months after the elections.
Yet, in the live TV studios, this glaring discrepancy went unquestioned.
It got worse. My last story the evening before had opened thus: “With slightly over one million votes still unannounced…” At about 4:00pm the previous day, our calculations, which were based on the IEBC’s declaration days before, were that about 10,4 million people had voted – a figure that placed the voter turnout at 72 per cent; high, but not out of the ordinary. Looking at the proffered figures, about two million new votes had somehow been received and tallied in the hours since the Commission had suspended counting.
The late-night festival of sloppy arithmetic now bordered on the farcical. On the TV results board, the individual figures of the eight candidates in the presidential contest did not amount to the final figure that the IEBC was presenting. It was off by a few thousand votes – the kind of mistake that, while casually dismissed as a typo, also suggested a rushed job of literally making up numbers to achieve a predetermined end.
In the 2007 elections, Sam Kivuitu, the election commission chairman, had stunned the nation with a dangerously cavalier allegation that he could not reach his election returning officers over the phone. Kivuitu had then lit the match to the national tinderbox by casually remarking that the returning officers were probably “cooking results somewhere”. This time around, not only were the results so obviously false, but the cooking itself had been so hurried that the figures themselves didn’t even make logical sense.
And still in the live TV studios, the stench went unnoticed. Outside on the streets, the celebrations were beginning. Passing cars honked, loudly, repeatedly. Up the road from my house, bars that were Jubilee strongholds, were erupting in cheers. The alcohol would flow until dawn. Or maybe I had just become more alive to the associated sounds of victory; maybe somebody was having a birthday party. In the distance, you could now hear more than the occasional victory whoop, the wails and screams of the deliriously jubilant. But it could have been a robbery and those could have been sounds of distress.
In the morning, the millions who had gone to sleep soon after IEBC commissioner, Yusuf Nzibo, had closed the tallying centre for the night, would wake up to what in effect was a peaceful takeover of power – a bloodless coup. They would switch on their radios and televisions to the delirious exhortations of peace, not the alarm bells of an incompetent electoral heist. The world on the morning of 9 March, as the Kenyan mainstream media was reconstructing it, had become a strange Orwellian universe of Kenyan double-speak. Neighbourhoods such as Kibera and Kawangware and Mathare (the slums and informal settlements that ringed Nairobi’s middle-class suburbs west of Uhuru Highway and fell away into Eastlands) were hotbeds of election violence and therefore encircled by state security forces. The General Service Unit (GSU), the Administration Police and the regular cops had them on lockdown.
And the lockdown policy, which had gone totally unreported by the mainstream media, extended even to areas where the power elite had recently constructed a Pax Kenyana. From Eldoret, a Jubilee stronghold and the main town in the North Rift, a friend had called me just before the elections.
“Ole, nini mbaya na Jubilee, bwana? Hawajui sisi ni watu wao? Yaani, huku Eldoret ukishuka kutoka matatu hauwezi kutema mate bila igonge security! Wako kila mahali. Yaani, wametufinya mpaka wameleta Forest Rangers!” [“What’s wrong with these Jubilee guys? Don’t they know we now support them? Here in Eldoret you can’t get off the matatu and spit without hitting a security man. They are everywhere. And they have squeezed us so much they have even brought in forest rangers to beef up security!”]
From the media’s point of view, as I would learn in the coming days and weeks, the top priority of these elections was not a faithful determination of the will of the people. It was to ensure that the biggest victor was peace.
Peace, then, was the main objective of the coup.
It had been 30 years since the last coup attempt. And it had begun at about 3:00 am on the morning of 1 August 1982. The coup plotters, junior Air Force cadres in partnership with University of Nairobi student radicals, had made a bee-line for the Voice of Kenya – Broadcasting House, as it was then called – taken over the TV and radio studios of both the General Service and the National Service at gunpoint, and ordered the night staff to fetch two celebrity presenters, Leonard Mambo Mbotela, a veteran Kiswahili broadcaster, and Raphael Tuju, a young man with a mellifluous voice and unimpeachable English diction – a man whose star would ironically rise from that doomed morning and take him all the way to the cabinet two decades later, and in 2013, to launch a short-lived run for the presidency. The two were hauled from their beds in the middle of that Saturday night and brought to Broadcasting House to announce the coup.
Taking over the nation’s broadcasting facilities has always been ground zero of the African coup.
This time around, the mechanics of the coup were far more complex. As a boy on that morning in 1982, I had run through a complicated terrain of emotions when the soldiers took over Broadcasting House – anxiety, a secret excitement, patriotic opposition (to both the putschists and Moi), relief and disappointment. Leonard Mambo’s voice had grown stronger, the way it did in a football match in which Kenya was leading and full-time was approaching, as the coup plotters lost the advantage to a rearguard action of Moi army loyalists.
Private TV and radio stations had flowered in the two decades of multiparty rule and economic deregulation. The media was far and away the most trusted public institution. Its anchors were the most familiar guests in Kenyan households. A clutch of Leonard Mambos had sprouted, one or two for each station. As a boy, Leonard Mambo’s triumphant announcement that serikali ya Daniel Toroitich arap Moi bado iko imara – that Moi’s government was still intact – had left me relieved, but curious. Not about why they had wanted to overthrow Moi in the first place, but about what would have happened if those angry young men had succeeded.
Two days after the IEBC officially declared Uhuru Kenyatta victor, I had lunch with a senior TV editor at one of the main broadcasting houses. In his mid-30s, he had risen fast up the ladder on account of his pugnacity and sharp intelligence, and his ability to play the kind of middle-of-the-road politics inside a media house that had found its staff sharply divided along ethnic lines during that sordid interregnum between 2007 and 2013. The sun was out and traffic was beginning to clog up the roads again. We met at a midway point between his house and mine, in an al fresco restaurant that serves insanely expensive salads and sandwiches. He arrived late, very well rested and dressed for a day away from the office – shorts, sandals and a brightly-printed T-shirt. He remarked that he had been in the studio for five days straight during election week.
“For us, the choice was very clear this time around,” he explained as he crunched into his salad. “Were we Kenyans first or were we journalists first? The answer was obvious: we were not going to let this country burn on account of chasing a story.”
“But surely that’s a false comparison. Besides, if you guys were so intent on keeping the peace, how did you allow the IEBC to smuggle through the final results in the middle of the night? Weren’t you concerned that an announcement made after the tallying centre was closed was a potential trigger for violence?”
That seemed to give him pause.
“To be quite honest, I really can’t tell you what happened. I had already left the studio,” he said. He had left the studio around midnight after it became clear that there would be no further announcements from Bomas. At about 3:00 am, his phone had started ringing. When he finally picked it up, it was his cousin calling from a very loud place. He was drunk and jubilant and demanding that my friend get up and join them.
“By the time I left the studio, there was only a skeletal staff – technicians mostly. There could have been a junior anchor as well. But I agree with you, it was a mistake. We were a bit premature. It wouldn’t have changed anything, though.”
I went on another tack. “What about the results? Surely you guys had your own independent tallies. What figures were you using to cross-check what the IEBC was presenting?”
I sensed an evasiveness on his part, but it could have been that he genuinely did not know: “We had at least one person in every constituency so we have our own tallies.”
“But you’ve heard as much as I have that there’s a huge discrepancy in the results that the IEBC has presented. What are your tallies telling you?”
“To be quite honest, I don’t know. I’m back in the office kesho. Let me check and get back to you.”
He never did. We finished our lunch over some small talk and agreed to stay in touch, which we have not.
Back at my desk, I called up another friend in the same media house. The question of numbers was still very much on my mind. In the past two elections, media houses had deployed their own personnel at polling centres and built their own database. Naturally suspicious of official figures, it was those results that they had always announced. On the morning of Sunday, 30 December 2007, Francis Muthaura, then head of the civil service, had called up senior editors and instructed them to “prepare the nation for a major announcement”. All had acquiesced.
Having suspended the announcement of their own results several hours before, Muthaura’s directive paved the way for Samuel Kivuitu at the Electoral Commission of Kenya to announce Mwai Kibaki’s victory – and put the flame to the fire that swept across the country.
“Did you guys have your own tallies?” I asked my friend over the phone.
“We didn’t. And even if we did, we were not interested in using them,” he said. His self-indictment did not alarm me. We were old friends. A language had developed between us. He was an old cynical hack who had been jaded long ago, having seen the clay feet of his corporate managers and the petty ethnic brown-nosing in the newsroom that defined who rose and who didn’t. He had been an early victim of it. These days, he kept his head down, occasionally got exercised by a juicy scandal, drank his brandy on Saturday nights and waited for his pension.
“We are part of the game. Kenya died on March 9, my friend. This was an exchange of pall-bearers.”
Mau Mau-ing the peace project
Critically wounded by the post-election crisis of 2008, Kenya’s rival political formations continued to flirt with disaster as the March 2013 election approached. The official death count in the two months-long orgy of violence after the December 2007 elections was 1,300. Another 650,000 had been internally displaced.
Routinely deployed by the media to preface a narrative of a country still coming to grips with its capacity for self-harm, these twinned statistics had become ciphers of Kenya’s changed international status. If Kenya had always been the beacon of peace and stability in one of the most unstable and unpeaceful neighbourhoods on the planet, those statistics now signalled a more troublesome reality. They spoke of a postconflict country, one still perilously on the brink.
Domestically, a slightly different narrative had developed around the post-election crisis statistics. On one level those numbers, etched deeply in the public imagination by their constant repetition, served as a living memorial of a national disaster. Occasionally serviced by a rhetoric of shame, embarrassment – sepiatinted media accounts of the continuing plight of the displaced; donor-funded peace caravans organised by NGOs in hotspot areas; privately organised public photo exhibitions emphasising the dictum “Never Again” – they would become, ironically, a powerful silencing tool in the emerging ideology of peace.
At another level, the statistics were used in the local media as a collective public rebuke against a political elite that, having displayed a callous disregard for the victims in a crisis of its own making, continued to do precious little to heal the country. They were, then, a kind of ‘national reconciliation-tracker’, an inverted peace-and-stability barometer.
It had taken a foreign intervention to push the country back from the brink in early 2008. Kofi Annan had brokered the peace, backed by the some of the region’s eminence grises – Ben Mkapa, the former Tanzanian president, Graça Machel and the other members of the AU’s Panel of Eminent African Personalities.
The panel had recommended a series of long-term reforms to resolve independent Kenya’s political bug-bears: land restitution, tribalism and elite impunity. Dubbed the “Agenda Four” items, they gave force to the hurriedly assembled ceasefire deal that ended the post-election violence at the end of February 2008.
Beneath the formalism of the National Accord, the informal, ethnicised language of Kenyan politics continued to smuggle the poison into the national discourse. If the crisis had served to embarrass the nation and lower its international and regional standing – those intangibles that had for so long been safeguarded by a shared national neurosis for tourists’ and foreign investors’ sensibilities – the problem was that the crisis had exposed a very badly kept secret of Kenyan public life – that a necessary condition of politics, indeed a necessary ingredient of anybody with ambitions for high office, was the possession and careful cultivation of a split personality.
Some called it tri-lingualism: English for the international audience; Kiswahili for the ‘National Brother’ talk and, increasingly, the region; and your mother tongue for the homeboys and girls. Fluidly negotiating all three was the mark of the fully-realised Kenyan. Except that these were currencies that routinely transacted and translated available goods across the boundaries of their individual territories.
In simplistic and reductive terms, it could be said that the crisis had precipitated a retreat from ‘Kenya’ – from English and Kiswahili, from the forced smile prepared for tourist consumption. Beneath it lay now the narrowed gaze of ethnic rivalry, of village hatreds exposed.
The import of 28 February 2008 was simple and unambiguous: Kenya’s Western allies would not stand aside and watch the country burn. In an unstable neighbourhood full of lost and unstable causes, failed states, post-conflict banana republics still on a humanitarian drip, Kenya, the regional launch pad of the Western relief industry was too big, too important to fail. They were demanding peace at any cost. Therein lay the mustard seeds that would become the tyranny of peace.
Two rival ideologies had sprouted as a result of the crisis and each produced a narrative that indicted the other for the mess. Boiled down to its essences, it came to this: on the left, that is Raila Odinga and his ODM supporters, the crisis was triggered by a stolen election. To protect it, Mwai Kibaki, with his Kikuyu and Mount Kenya ethnic cohorts in the securocracy, had deployed state security to shut down protest.
Left with no alternative, the people had spontaneously risen against a tyrannical system that had long favoured urban landlords, rural agrarian barons, peasant farmers non-indigenous to native areas such as the Coast and especially the Rift Valley, and security forces loyal to the ‘Mt Kenya mafia’. Any attempts at meaningful restitution would have to address peace from the launch-pad of truth and justice. It would necessarily mean a historical audit of community and ethnic land grievances and of the role of the state in protecting the privilege of dominant ethnic groups and promoting impunity.
On the side of Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), the argument began with the violence – that it was premeditated and planned. Claims of a stolen election legitimately won by Kibaki and declared by an independent electoral commission were only a strategy by the Odinga mob to settle historical scores against a people known for their industry and thrift. Peace needed to be restored at all costs, including through the use of legitimate violence.
If it seemed clear that Annan had bought the left’s argument, the right still had the reins of power – Kibaki remained in State House and controlled the strategic dockets of finance, defence, energy, internal security and the civil service. The left might have won the argument, but the terms of the debate were still defined by the Mt Kenya elite.
Annan, however, had crafted a ransom deal. The Kibaki faction recognised this immediately. As the guardians of the national interest, they were being held hostage to a new and strange regime that demanded of them an unprecedented level of personal and collective accountability.
The ensuing games of subversion, the contests of power – the road to The Hague and to 9 March 2013 – those are merely the details, the drama of a conservative elite finding itself in a corner, its Western patrons, white coats and all, standing menacingly over the difficult patient with a glass and a cocktail of bitter pills. So there was squirming. And then a series of evasions, detours and diversions, all devised to maintain the status quo by whatever means necessary.
No effort whatsoever was made to deal with the perpetrators of the violence; and only lip service was given to coming to a reckoning with the underlying issues. Thus, of the 5,000 police investigation files on violence, not a single one has ever been successfully prosecuted. In one of only a handful of cases that went to court, a policeman, captured by TV cameras hunting down and shooting a protester in Kisumu, was acquitted for lack of evidence; and Eric Kiraithe, then police spokesman, dismissed the TV evidence as manufactured.
In all this, the corporate media found itself having to take a careful middle road. Acting in the public interest, it had faithfully documented the political drama of the bungled election and the violence that followed. The 2007 election was the first to be televised live. Across the country, witness accounts of the violence would speak of tensions building because of events seen on TV and of protests triggered by the announcement of the final results. If this was an indictment of the role of an engaged media, it was ironic that the onset of violence coincided with the ban on live reporting.
But there could be little doubt that media managers had been deeply affected by the role the media played leading up to the crisis. On 4 January 2008, as violence spiralled dangerously out of control, the mainstream press collectively published a page one editorial titled “Save Our Country”. It called for an end to the violence, for sanity and restraint. It urged political leaders to put their personal ambitions aside for the sake of the nation. It demanded a return to peace at all costs.
More than anything else, that editorial shaped what would become the dominant mantra of the post-election coalition era. But the peace imperative also gave the media an authority it had not previously possessed. Unfettered by a discredited political elite, free to make judgement calls in the national interest, the media was no longer just a check on power; no longer just a tool of the powerful or a voice of the citizenry. Corporate media had become its own centre of power.
Inventing the enemy
“Don’t let them leave with a story” ran the last lines of an op-ed piece carried in the Sunday Nation on 3 March 2013, the eve of the election. Them referred to the hordes of foreign correspondents that had gathered in Nairobi for the spectacle. But really, as the editorial suggested and many agreed, what they were looking for was the drama of African blood on the streets.
This was not a trifling thing. Like a family quarrel that had spilled into the street in the middle of the night, the aftermath of the election had come with a deep sense of regional and international embarrassment. The bloody images of January 2008 that had been carried in international media were still very fresh in the national psyche. And there was these days something in the secret smiles of our Ugandan banange, of Tanzanian ndugus, to whom you introduced yourself as Kenyan – all those proximate regional cousins of ours that had at one point in the long history of us found themselves refuged, refugeed even, in Kenya. If there had once been a vernacular of grudging respect, perhaps even something there laced with a national envy, a sense that despite those other knowledges we carry of each other – the tacit, the unwritten, the colloquial, the thing that you carry when you are gossiping – there was now something in that accidental smile underneath the brotherly concern that we post-election Kenyans had somehow been reduced. We were no longer virgins to strife.
To be sure, there was no shortage of foreign media malice. The CNN documentary that had come out a few days before the elections, Kenyans armed and ready to vote, had exposed the depths to which foreign media was prepared to go in its search for blood. Sold as an investigative exposé of planned violence in the Rift Valley, it was the kind of ignorant stage-managed theatre that spoke more of a Western media atavism when it came to Africa than of the savagery it purported to sensationalise. Nima Elbagir, the CNN correspondent, appeared to have either gathered or been seduced by a bunch of low-rent hoods to stage a slapstick reenactment of a forest militia in training for the coming violence. In the ‘documentary’, four goons armed with home-made weapons (including a facsimile of a village-produced gun) roll around, Kung-Fu movie-style, in some forest clearing somewhere in the Rift Valley, while incanting some mumbo-jumbo.
It was so patently false that it very briefly united Kenya’s fractious online community in a bond of nationalist fury. Under the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN, social media commentators directed their bile at CNN. The twitter ‘civil war’ between Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) and Jubilee was temporarily suspended.
It was not only the Western media that was turned into the enemy, but also the West itself. As almost every facet of Kenya’s establishment systematically fell on the argument that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were eligible to run for the presidency because they had not (yet) been convicted by the International Criminal Court, it was the needling of the West and their perceived beneficiaries, the ‘Lenana Road liberals’ in elite civil society organisations, that were turned into the enemy.
On 12 March, I went to visit a Western diplomat friend, a middle-aged man who had fashioned himself along the lines of a Graham Greene character – Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter – a cynical exterior designed to deflect any probing of the middle-aged expatriate soul beneath. Many years ago, he had been in the middle of a bloody war. It had marked him deeply. He spoke without illusions, without taking the missionary position that so many of his colleagues resorted to. And he had good intelligence, repeating to me much of what I had heard elsewhere. Tape recorder aside, we sat on his balcony, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes as he talked.
“Look, there’s nothing strange about rigging elections. I come from a place where we were masters of rigging. We did it for generations. Here, it’s a mafia war. Three families have been fighting for dominance since independence – the Kenyattas, the Odingas and the Mois.
“On Friday afternoon, 8 March, senior diplos held a meeting. The prediction: the results would be announced in the middle of the night. The psychological impact of the long delays, as well as the military presence in Cord strongholds and neighbourhoods, was huge. Their will was weakening.”
We talked about how the results were smuggled into the TV studios. He said he suspected that phone calls had been made.
“Are you aware that we’ve been on the brink of civil war at least three times in the past week?” he asked, but did not elaborate.
Later, during the petition at the Supreme Court, Jubilee and IEBC lawyers would make a compelling argument for national security. For peace and stability.
What was clear to my diplomat friend was that Raila Odinga was never an option. There was too much at stake: the trials at The Hague, the Chinese deals in the security sector. It was about money, especially for the securocrats. Money. The ethnic garrisoning, the magical anti-imperialist plot that had been designed by Kenyatta’s London public relations team – those were mere vehicles.
“Kikuyu hardliners had one goal: ABR – Anyone But Raila. Plan A was to fix the voters register and intimidate voters in Raila’s strongholds. It would be very difficult to prove. But you saw what happened, especially with the violence in the Tana River and the Coast, and in Kisumu. The idea was to depress voting in Cord areas.”
“At the same time, Jubilee convinced the business community that it was cheaper bribe-wise to have them in power than Raila. Business had been dealing with ODM ministries during the coalition period. They were more corrupt. They ate more.”
“At the end of it this would have been a hung election. But Jubilee would not have won without fixing it. And that was their major fear. Because they knew they couldn’t win it in Round 2… What do we do now? In my language, we call this checkmate. The mafia war is over. The next phase is that the two factions will begin fighting themselves.”
He kept turning back to how Kenyatta and Jubilee had fixed the West. But he was smarting. Like many Westerners so comfortable with the quiescent African state – the handout state – Jubilee’s anti-Western rhetoric had got to him.
“They had us by the balls. Nobody wanted to set off a civil war. So everybody backed down. Now the rules of the game have changed. All the peace messages financed by the West were designed to avert civil war. But they were used for other agendas.”
He had no doubt that it would soon be business as usual, that Western interests would trump principle. This was business. “At the moment, the idealists are wringing their hands. The realists are biding their time. Before getting down to business with these guys.”
As I left, he remarked: “The relations are never going to be the same again. Jubilee played the Bob Mugabe card. That is something we will never forget. Or forgive.”
The rhetoric of abiding anti-imperialism became a tool to silence any groups that questioned the absurdity of having two indictees for war crimes in State House. For that, apparently, there was no national anxiety, no shame, no threat of international embarrassment.
Meanwhile, the avalanche of peace messaging continued unabated. On TV, radio, billboards, at prayer rallies and media road shows, on social media and text messaging platforms, the peace blitz was producing something of a national emergency. The donors had poured millions of dollars into NGO peace-awareness campaigns. Politicians, clergymen, media personalities and local celebrities of all shades were recruited into the project, wheeled into TV ads, voice-overed on radio, smiling psychotically as peace thought-bubbles bled into billboard slogans on the highway. What was alarming was the extent of establishment fear of the vagabond other and his suspected capacity to turn to violence at the first opportunity.
Just in case the peace blitz failed to persuade the populace, 99,000 security personnel had been deployed across the country to enforce the emergency doctrine.
And early on election morning, it became clear that the collective determination to stave off international embarrassment – to send the foreign media vultures back from whence they came, bereft of a story – knew no limits.
My phone began ringing at about 4:00 am. There had been attacks in Mombasa against the police. In Likoni, four senior police officers had been ambushed and killed; another 10 civilians had perished. In Mshomoroni, a policeman had been disarmed. In Kilifi, a government office had been burnt to the ground.
Various contacts intimated that the attacks were coordinated. There were two broad versions to the story. The one emerging from official quarters was that the attacks were the work of the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council. The MRC had previously gone on a campaign against the elections on the basis of its secessionist agenda. But it had been suppressed for months, its leaders incarcerated. Those who were still free had reneged on the earlier anti-election idea and, on pain of imprisonment, had taken to preaching peace.
The other version was that the violence was orchestrated by state security to suppress voter turnouts at the Coast. Whatever the case, what had happened at the Coast that night was the kind of domino event that would have very well collapsed the house of cards that the peace campaign had built.
And so the media quite wisely suppressed the unfolding events in that region.
But this willingness to silence anything that lay outside the script became a defining feature of the election period.
There is not enough room to go into a blow-by-blow account of the election drama – the suppression of untidy news; the media’s strange acquiescence to ignore everything but the most obvious details of the spectacular collapse of the $250 million electronic voter platform at the IEBC – that it was in all likelihood a deliberate sabotage from within the IEBC itself; the refusal to cover any media conferences called by Raila Odinga’s Cord Alliance. All of this was done in the name of peace.
Later, after Mr Issack Hassan and his team at the IEBC announced their contentious results; later, when the Supreme Court denied the two petitions challenging those results and then refused to deliver a verbal ruling, instead asking the country to download it from their website, the only sound that could be heard across the country – or at least in those parts of the country that were convinced that they had been robbed of victory – was the sound of silence.
Parselelo Kantai‘s post-election reporter’s election diary, was first published in the print edition of the Chronic.
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Kantai is one of Kenya leading investigative journalists, currently based at Africa Report. His fiction writing has been published in several journals, including Kwani? and Chimurenga. His short story “Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band” was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.