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.

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.

Will turnout disappoint Odinga tomorrow?

Travel, conference and more travel have kept me from blogging in the last few days. I am back online. Kenyans go to the polls tomorrow. This is a post from a few days ago.

I am in New Haven (great to be back!) for a conference and visiting with friends before going back to Nairobi for Monday’s election and wanted to make a quick post on the latest in the upcoming Kenyan elections.

1. The Second Presidential Debate:

The second presidential debate was rather dull, to be honest.

The entire first half was supposed to be dedicated on the economy but mostly dwelt on the specific subject of corruption at the expense of other more pressing concerns like jobs and the modernization and formalization of the Kenyan economy (Not to trivialize Kenya’s obscene levels of corruption, but apparently the moderators do not read Blattman’s blog. The problem is huge, but there were other pressing economic issues that could have been addressed.)

The candidates were, as expected evasive over the matter – mostly giving vague answers to pointed questions on scandals they were rumored to have been involved in; from Goldenberg to Anglo Leasing to Maize to typos at the treasury.

The jester Candidate Dida provided a light moment when he asked the moderator if she expected thieves to admit that they had stolen.

The second half was better. It dealt with the issue of land. Again, no real answers emerged but it put Mr. Kenyatta – who’s family owns large tracts of land – on the hot seat. Land is an issue that has been the cause of ethnic clashes in every Kenyan election since 1992. Voters may just have got one more thing to think about before casting their votes on Monday.

Overall, I cannot say that any one candidate won the debate. However, Mr. Kenyatta lost a few points due to the amount of time spent on the land question. His main opponent Mr. Odinga even came to his rescue at one point, reminding viewers to cut Mr. Kenyatta some slack since he only inherited land that may have been dubiously appropriated by his father while he was president.

2. Election Day’s Big Unknown: TURNOUT

As I have pointed out before, the outcome of the presidential election in Kenya next Monday will hinge on turnout. Whether we shall wake up on March 5th with a president-elect or have to go for a runoff will depend on regional turnout rates.

As it is most public opinion polls point to a runoff.

However, the polls do not give us a sense of what proportion of registered voters are likely to vote.

One private poll that I have seen suggests that 98.3% of those polled said they would show up to vote. Such turnout numbers belong in Belarus. I expect average turnout to be between 75-85%.

Below is a table with the turnout rates in the last three presidential elections. (The 2007 figures should taken with a pinch of salt, for obvious reasons). As you can see history seems to be on Mr. Kenyatta’s side. Central Kenya and the Rift Valley, the two most populous regions of the country both support him overwhelmingly (according to the latest Ipsos Synovate poll) and have the highest average historical turnout rates.

Region/Turnout 1997 2002 2007 Kenyatta Support Odinga Support
Central 74.1 66.1 82.1 88.1 6.4
Rift Valley 75.9 60.8 72.8 69 23.3
Eastern 72.6 60.9 65.9 41.8 52.7
Nyanza 67.2 55.6 76.2 9.8 83.8
Western 68.1 57.1 62 3.4 53.6
North Eastern 55.9 57.8 61.3 37.9 44.1
Coast 50.6 42.1 57 18.3 73
Nairobi 50.2 42 51.5 39.6 51.9

Could turnout rates be different this time?

The answer is maybe, due to the following new variables:

  • New positions created in the constitution – governor, senator, and women rep – might attract new voters in addition to those who have in the past voted for the three other posts – president, MP and councillor (now county rep). This might increase turnout across the board, but since Mr. Kenyatta is already “maxing” his turnout rates Odinga might benefit from an overall increase in turnout rates.
  • The dropping of calls for “six piece” vote. Earlier in the cycle both candidates had insisted that voters should vote one straight ticket for the party for all six posts. However, since the nominations for both leading parties/coalitions were a total mess many popular candidates did not get nominated on the “right parties.” Insisting on a six piece vote would have lowered turnout. However, without it everyone has a candidate to vote for in their preferred presidential candidate’s stronghold. This may increase turnout since it gives incentive for say someone running in an Odinga stronghold, who supports Odinga, but is not in Odinga’s party to still mobilize his supporters to the polls in competition with the candidate in Odinga’s party. Again, a higher average turnout rate will benefit Mr. Odinga.

3. The Numbers:

The last polls before the election (about five of them) show a slim national lead for Mr. Odinga over Mr. Kenyatta, 45% to 43% on average. But since we do not know the make up of likely voters I would be reluctant to declare Mr. Odinga a favorite going into Monday. Mr. Kenyatta’s strongholds have historically had better turnout rates than Mr. Odinga’s.

And on the matter of polls, the following factors may lead to surprises on Monday night:

  • Desirability biases in the survey: We do not know to what extent those interviewed lied about who they support. And on this count Mr. Kenyatta runs the highest risk. Because of the ICC cases he and his running mate face, many higher income and educated Kenyans have had concerns about their ability to run the country “via Skype.” If such people residing in the Rift Valley and Central regions lied to pollsters because they were expected to like Kenyatta then we may be in for a surprise on Monday night. If Mr. Odinga gets more than 35% of the votes in Rift Valley and about 15% in Central Kenya he will win the presidential election in the first round. 
  • Strategic voting: One of Mr. Odinga’s many challenges has been the Western Kenya region where Musalia Mudavadi comes from. Mr. Mudavadi is the third candidate, getting 6% on most polls nationally and about 34% in Western region. Mr. Odinga gets 53% in the region and Kenyatta 3%. In the event of a runoff, most of Mudavadi’s voters will break for Odinga. Mr. Mudavadi’s candidature centres on becoming a King maker and elevating his stature as a serious contender in the next elections (2017). But if Western voters who would support Odinga in the second round decide to do so in the first round Odinga will have an outright victory in the first round.

Barring any surprises on Monday (esp with regard to turnout) the state of play is that the first round will be a close contest between Kenyatta and Odinga, with one or two percentage points separating them.

Mr. Kenyatta is a slight favorite to win the first round, but will be short of the 50% required for an outright win. In the second round, however, I expect Mr. Odinga to be a clear frontrunner since most of Mudavadi’s voters in Western Kenya will break for him. I also expect a little bit of anti-Ruto (Kenyatta’s running mate) votes in the Rift Valley going to Mr. Odinga. I am very curious as to what President Moi’s promised major announcement on March 5th will be…. perhaps an endorsement?

All in all I would put my money on Mr. Odinga becoming Kenya’s fourth president.

Uhuru Kenyatta Emerges as 1st Round Favorite in Kenya’s March 4th Poll

OK, so as promised, here is my first attempt at looking at the numbers and what they are telling us about the outcome of the March 4th general election in Kenya.

14.3 million Kenyans registered to vote this year. Out of this (based on historical turnout rates) about 11 million will actually show up to vote. If the opinion polls are right, neither Uhuru Kenyatta nor Raila Odinga (the top two frontrunners) will get the requisite 50% plus one vote required to win the election. It is likely that there will be a runoff. About 4% of voters remain undecided. The polling trend (see below) suggests that the race will tighten over the next six weeks before the election.


The first opinion polls after the party nominations show Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of Prime Minister Raila Odinga in the raw vote, at least according to my analysis. The overall national head to head match up in the two polls released Monday show Mr. Odinga leading Mr. Kenyatta by (48-40, Infotrak) and (40-36, Ipsos).

The regional poll tallies, on the other hand, show a different story. In these Mr. Kenyatta emerges with a lead of between 490,000 and 630,000 of the accounted for votes depending on the turnout models used. The average of the tallies show that if elections were held over last weekend Mr. Kenyatta would garner 4.5 million votes to Mr. Odinga’s 3.9. This leaves about 24% of the (potential) votes cast either spread out among the other presidential contenders or undecided.

Here is how I arrived at the numbers:

The surveys by Infotrak and Ipsos (the two firms correctly predicted the outcome of the 2010 referendum) gave regional tallies of how the top two coalitions did among those surveyed. With a few modifications (like assigning the GEMA counties in Eastern region the Central region poll results), I assigned these tallies to the different counties within the regions. I then estimated voter turnout using the numbers from the three most recent national voting exercises – 2002 and 2007 elections and the 2010 referendum. Because of the anomalies in the presidential election in 2007, I used the constituency turnout figures (In these figures, for instance, Juja and Nithi did not have turnouts exceeding 100% as was the case in the presidential election in 2007). Of course there are counties in which the popularity of either Kenyatta or Odinga vary by constituency but this is the best we can do for now. I then used the estimated county turnout rate and the regional polling results to estimate the expected vote count for either candidate in each county using IEBC’s figures of registered voters.

It is important to note that among the two polls, Infotrak asked respondents about their preferred ticket (Kenyatta and Ruto vs. Odinga and Musyoka) while Ipsos asked about individual presidential candidates. The discrepancy in the national polling average and the raw numbers I show here might be because of incorrect weighting of the different regions by the polling companies. The fact that Kenyans vote along ethnic lines and voters are geographically concentrated means that the regional polling numbers might provide a better picture than the national numbers. National polls appear to be over-estimating Odinga’s support by about 3 percentage points on average.

Uhuru Kenyatta is ahead in the raw figures for the following reasons:

  1. The first reason is that Mr. Kenyatta has the numbers. The combined GEMA registered voters number 3.9 million. That is 27.3% of the registered voters. Mr. Kenyatta obviously won’t bag 100% of these votes but it doesn’t hurt to have a vote rich base.
  2. His stronghold of the wider Mt. Kenya region had the highest voter registration rate in the country. This, combined with the fact that his running mate brings in the populous Rift Valley region, gives Kenyatta a slight edge off the gates.
  3. Kenyatta’s strongholds (Mt. Kenya) and Rift Valley have historically had higher turnout rates than the regions that Odinga will need to win on March 4th. In 2002 Kenyatta’s strongholds had a higher turnout rate by 5 percentage points. In 2007 it was 10%.
  4. The combined high population, higher registration rates and expected higher turnout means that Mr. Kenyatta is presently the favorite to win the first round of the March 4th presidential poll.

How can Odinga win?

  1. A lot of voters (24%) remain spread out among the smaller candidates or are undecided. Come election day these voters may break for Mr. Odinga for the reasons I gave in an earlier post.
  2. Mr. Odinga’s other path to victory is by ensuring high turnout in his strongholds of Nyanza, Western and Coast regions. Just by matching the expected turnout in Mr. Kenyatta’s strongholds he would reduce the deficit to about 250,000 votes.
  3. He must also eat into some of Mr. Kenyatta’s support in the Rift Valley and Central regions. If the election is a mere census then Mr. Kenyatta will win the first round (the second round is another story all together). For Mr. Odinga to win he must convince voters in Mr. Kenyatta’s strongholds that he is the better candidate.

Facing reality:

For a while it seemed like this election was Mr. Odinga’s to lose. I have since softened on this a little bit. Despite his many problems, Mr. Kenyatta can still win this election, at least the first round. In the second round everything will be contingent on who between Messrs Kenyatta and Odinga can bag the roughly 20% of votes that will go to various smaller candidates in the first round. As things stand Mr. Odinga is the likely beneficiary of these votes.

A lot will happen between now and March 4th. But key things to consider include:

  1. If turnout is low on March 4th Mr. Kenyatta will emerge the winner. His (national) base is relatively wealthier and more urban (or more accurately, more politically engaged – if you doubt this see the voter registration numbers for Kiambu county alone) than Mr. Odinga’s and thus will have a higher turnout. Having failed to match Mr. Kenyatta’s voter registration rates, Mr. Odinga needs upwards of 80% of those registered in his strongholds to show up to vote, or else he will lose.
  2. Mr. Kenyatta appeared to be the better organized candidate in getting his base to register to vote. And given the way in which his party handled the nominations exercise, it is likely that he will out-organize Mr. Odinga in getting his supporters to the polls. This spells more trouble for Mr. Odinga.
  3. The nominations exercise gave Mr. Odinga’s coalition bad press for four consecutive days. His home base of Nyanza was the worst affected. Seemingly undemocratic nomination exercises – in which Odinga’s allies controversially won party primaries – in the region may depress turnout, something that Odinga should be worrying about A LOT. Watch out for how Mr. Odinga’s party handles the nominations fallout in his Nyanza backyard.
  4. Musalia Mudavadi appears to have made gains in Western province – he is polling there at 26%. His gain is Odinga’s loss. If Mr. Mudavadi continues to gain in the next 40 days then we shall almost be assured of a run off, after Mr. Kenyatta wins the first round.