Sloppy Reporting on the Kenyan Elections

Dear readers, it has been a while since I did a rant and rave post. Here is one to end the long drought. Today we look at a couple of pieces done by Al-Jazeera and the New Yorker.

First The New Yorker.

I love the New Yorker. Everyone does. Unless you are weird. Or do not like their politics.

But the New Yorker should get a better writer than James Verini on the upcoming Kenyan elections. Reporting on the first presidential debate, Verini made several unforgivable errors. I mean, I know it is hard to find information on countries that you may or may not have visited, or have only visited for a few days.

But Kenya is one of the most studied countries on the Continent. You can wikipedia or google your way to a decent article that passes a laugh test. Sadly, Verini’s does not. Here are the necessary corrections to his (original) piece (and certainly not the only ones):

  • First of all, there were two moderators, not one. Unless Verini only caught the first half of the debate. I will admit that the second half could have been better. But it wasn’t bad enough to forget that there were two moderators. Julie Gichuru moderated the second half.
  • Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta was not a “Mau Mau rebel.” Also, the Mau Mau are popularly known in Kenya as freedom fighters. Dedan Kimathi, a leading light in the independence movement and Mau Mau leader, has a statue in his honor on Kimathi street in downtown Nairobi.
  • Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga is not “a human rights lawyer.” He is “an engineer by profession.” Odinga says so when he introduces himself at the beginning of the debate. What makes Verini think Odinga is a human rights lawyer? (Might be because, as he admits, he was at Njuguna’s – perhaps chasing down goat meat (nyama choma) with Tusker. The New Yorker should institute strict sobriety requirements when sourcing stories, but I digress.)
  • Nairobi is not in Central Province. Nairobi is a Province on its own. Kenya has eight provinces (now called regions) – Rift Valley, Eastern, North Eastern, Coast, Western, Central, Nyanza and Nairobi. Nairobi borders Central. But it is not in Central. I swear. You can google it.
  • The post-election violence in 2007-08 was not mainly a Kikuyu-Luo affair. Most deaths occurred in the Rift Valley in clashes between Kikuyus and Kalenjins, over land. Police brutality was number two in cause of deaths. Kikuyu-Luo clashes were horrific. But they were not the defining feature of the PEV.
  • The 2010 Constitution did not make the position of Prime Minister permanent. It abolished it. You can also google a copy of the Kenyan Constitution. There is a pdf online. I swear. Or you could just read the Wikipedia entry here.

And then Al-Jazeera:

For a news organization that claims to counter the dominance and supposed orientalist biases of CNN International and the BBC with nuanced on-the-ground reporting, this is unforgivable. Here’s is how Peter Greste opens his report on the Kenyan election:

Political science is an imprecise discipline at the best of times. But in Kenya, it feels more akin to witchcraft.

In most established democracies, astute analysts can have a reasonable stab at predicting the outcome of elections. The regular if well-spaced drum-beat of polls gives anyone who cares to look, a decent set of historical data to work with.

It’s usually possible to check the voting patterns of a particular electorate; assess the impact of demographic changes; and with the help of some intelligent opinion polling, have a good understanding of the way a country might swing.

But in Kenya, this election is stacked with so many unknown factors that a witch throwing newt’s eyes into a bubbling cauldron might have as good a chance at predicting the outcome as the political scientists.

Really Mr. Greste, really?

Witchcraft? Why that term? Why not just say that you do not have a grasp of the political reality and so don’t know how the election will turn out? Are you trying to say something about your readers (that they easily resort to witchcraft to explain things they do not comprehend) or Kenya?

I put it to you that there are three firms that have been polling the Kenyan public on their political preferences since the last election in 2007. These firms accurately predicted the outcome of the messy 2007 election (and pretty much matched the exit polls conducted by UCLA academics) and the 2010 referendum. Kenya has demographic data that politicians make very good use of. For instance, we know the ethnic composition of Nairobi, the most cosmopolitan PROVINCE (hear me, Mr. Verini) in Kenya.

Also, a few political scientists, including yours truly, have done some predictions as to the potential outcomes of the election (see blog posts below).

Why did these two do this?

To me it looks like a bad case of trying to exoticize the Kenyan elections for their audiences – what with the references to witchcraft by Mr. Greste and Mr. Verini’s over-simplification of the election to a Kikuyu-Luo tribal contest.

It is also disrespectful to Kenyans, who they seem to think will not do any fact-checking to correct their sloppiness.

Nominate the best blogs of 2012

A View From the Cave blogger Tom Murphy is holding the annual Aid Best Blogger Awards (ABBA). I don’t consider my blog to be an “aid blog” per se but I think I fit into the general category that Tom intended to include in his awards.

If I may toot my own horn a little, I even once got a shout out from one of the better know aid bloggers out there, Chris Blattman (Blogger of the Year last year).

So if you like what you read on this blog please go ahead and nominate the blog for this year’s awards here.

Some of my better posts in recent months have been on the topics of the upcoming elections in Kenya and the conflict in eastern DRC.

The State of the 2013 Presidential Race in Kenya

 (1) The Presidential Debate:

On Monday Kenyans witnessed, for the first time ever, a live presidential debate. I must say I was surprised by how well this went. The moderators, at least in the first half of the debate, had very pointed hard-hitting questions – especially on ethnicity and the ICC question.

The top two candidates, Mr. Raila Odinga and Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, were taken to task about the apparent ethnic arithmetic behind their campaign strategies and the perceived animosity between their respective ethnic groups, the Luo and Kikuyu. Both flatly denied the charges. But it nonetheless provided a moment of open discussion of negative ethnicity, which remains as the key organizing principle of Kenyan politics – with disastrous security and economic consequences.

Mr. Kenyatta was grilled on how he planned to govern from The Hague while on trial at the ICC; or whether it was legally or ethically tenable for him to be running in the first place. Mr. Odinga did not miss the moment and chimed in by stating that it would be logistically challenging to run a government via skype from The Hague. Many of those on stage – with the exception of Martha Karua and Abduba Dida – concurred that the trials should be held in Kenya and that Uhuru should be allowed to run (Today Kenya’s high court ruled that Uhuru and Ruto can run for office despite the charges at the ICC).

So who won the debate?

The simple answer is Mr. Kenyatta.

On negative ethnicity he shared the blame with Mr. Odinga. Mr. Odinga, as the Prime Minister, was often questioned, and himself answered questions like he was the only one on stage currently in government – Kenyatta and Mudavadi are his deputies, and Kenyatta was at one time Finance Minister. As a result he took a lot of flak for the failures of the current government.

Ironically, Mr. Kenyatta’s best moment in the debate was on the topic of the ICC charges against him and his running mate Mr. William Ruto. Because of the sovereignty overtones (Kenyans can “tribal”, but are also nationalist) in admitting that Kenya could not handle the cases, many on stage, including Odinga, said that Mr. Kenyatta should run – adding that the trials should be brought back to Nairobi.

One of the biggest obstacles to Kenyatta’s candidacy has been the ICC question – indeed he almost quit the race over the issue. Donors have given veiled threats of sanctions. Many Kenyans thought (or hoped) that the courts would bar him. But the way the ICC issue played out in the debate reduced its significance as a wedge issue, and may influence a few undecideds. I get the sense that many left the debate with an excuse to vote for Kenyatta despite the ICC charges.

(2) The Numbers:

The numbers have not changed much since my last analysis, save for the fact that Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s numbers have begun to converge.


In the presidential debate Mr. Odinga complained that it smirked of ethnic dog whistling to try and predict the outcome of the election based on ethnic blocs (The combined ethnic blocs of Kenyatta and Ruto make up about 43% of Kenyans). His complaint exposed his biggest fear. His party did a poor job of mobilizing voters to register.

While I disagree with the quality of punditry around this issue so far (the talking heads on TV often merely use raw voter registration numbers to predict outcomes) I don’t see anything wrong with trying to predict the outcome based on polling data.

In essence the outcome of this election will not only hinge on how many people registered where but also on how many of them actually turn up to vote. As I have argued before, this will mainly be a turnout election. Mr. Kenyatta leads by between 650,000 – 740,000 votes based on my turnout models. But Mr. Odinga can seriously dent this lead by simply matching Mr. Kenyatta’s stronghold turnout rates. If he does that and has a good day in Western region on March 4th he will win in round one. Otherwise we are most likely headed for a runoff, after Kenyatta wins the first round.

Either someone in Mr. Odinga’s campaign reads my blog (wishful thought of the day!) or they are sober with the numbers and have realized that they need a high turnout on voting day. Mr. Odinga this week launched a countrywide get out the vote drive.

The latest opinion poll (Friday 15th Feb) show a dead heat between Odinga and Kenyatta at 46% and 43% respectively. Such close numbers, coupled with Mr. Kenyatta’s head-start in voter registration and historically relatively higher turnout rates in his strongholds, do not bode well for Mr. Odinga’s chances.

 (3) On the Consequences of a Uhuru Victory:

In the last two weeks the diplomatic community in Nairobi have had a mini freak-out after coming to the realization that Mr. Kenyatta has a good chance to be Kenya’s 4th president. Many embassies insisted that they are neutral, but some also warned that the outcome would have consequences.  Barack Obama, the US President, even made a youtube video urging Kenyans to vote peacefully. France bluntly stated that they would only have essential contact with a Uhuru government if he wins.

Their freak-out betrays the knowledge that there is little they can do either before or after the election. Kenya gets about 5% of its development budget from donors; the rest comes from domestic taxes.  Nairobi can tell them to take a hike. Plus there’s China. And Somalia and South Sudan to be taken care of by a big international community based in Nairobi. The country is the diplomatic hub of the region, and indeed the continent. Nairobi houses the biggest US embassy in Africa and UNEP headquarters, the only UN office of its kind in the global south. In short Western leverage is limited both before and after the election.

In any case, the ICC case against Uhuru and Ruto appears to be crumbling. The prosecution significantly altered the charges, leading to a request yesterday for more time from the defense teams. The cases may start well after the elections in Kenya are over and done. Or they may be taken back to the pre-trial chamber and dismissed.

All things considered, I would not wish to be in Mr. Odinga’s or his strategists’ shoes right now.

2012 SFAS conference, “Mobile Africa”

The Stanford Forum for African Studies is an interdisciplinary organization of Africanist grad students at Stanford. SFAS, in collaboration with the Center for African Studies at Stanford, holds an annual conference in late October every year.

This year’s annual conference of the Stanford Forum for African Studies will be held October 26-27, 2012 at the Stanford Humanities Center. All are invited to attend. Guest speakers include Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town) and Senegalese writerBoubacar Boris Diop, best known for his book, Murambi.

The full conference program can be found on the SFAS website.