The general election campaign is now in full swing. In some ways, it is heavily reminiscent of the 2013 polls: the presidential race will boil down to a contest between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, and the cast of characters supporting each leader looks familiar.
But a closer look at the campaigns reveals a number of important differences to recent elections. Both Odinga and Kenyatta have had to radically change the messages that they use to connect to voters as a result of changing circumstances over the past decade. As a result, both are casting around for a new way to frame their appeals – not always successfully.
So what makes for an effective narrative? And what lessons can the 2017 campaign teach us about the state of Kenyan politics?
Framing the message
One of the most common opinions I have heard when talking about the presidential race with friends and colleagues is that neither side has so far come up with a compelling narrative that resonates with voters. As Karuti Kanyinga has put it, the campaign seems to lack an organizing principle.
Of course, elections are complicated things and can’t be reduced to just one issue. Not only does each party make a large number of promises, but different themes also tend to come to the fore in different places. However, these caveats notwithstanding, political communication tends to be far more effective when a range of appeals are effectively integrated under a common argument that voters can easily understand and identify with.
In 2007, the dividing lines were clear. The Party of National Unity (PNU) represented the establishment and sought to preserve the status quo. By contrast, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) promised far-reaching constitutional reform, including devolution. As a result, debates over majimbo (regional government), and what majimbo would mean, came to dominate the campaign.
This framing was ideal for Odinga, because it enabled him to appeal to a broad variety of voters through a single slogan. His supporters from different communities in various parts of the country did not have to agree on the most important issue for the opposition to address, because the promise of devolution was that each community would be able to elect its own leaders and set its own priorities. Partly as a result, Odinga came as close as he ever has to occupying State House.
Things had changed radically by 2013. By the time of that election, the 2010 constitution had been introduced and devolution was becoming a reality. This took the wind out of Odinga’s sails: it is almost impossible to effectively campaign on something that has already been delivered. This did not stop the opposition from trying, arguing that the government could not be trusted to effectively implement devolution, but arguments about implementation usually have too many shades of grey to truly excite the electorate.
Partly as a result, it was the recently formed Jubilee Alliance that gained momentum by pushing a message that established a new dividing line within the electorate. Rather than pro- and anti- majimbo camps, the election hinged on how voters felt about the candidature of Kenyatta and William Ruto – the “alliance of the accused” – and their prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.
In this context, UhuRuto cleverly made sovereignty the key organizing principle of their campaign. While the Jubilee Alliance was presented as the defender of Kenyan interests on the world stage, the ICC and “meddling” foreign donors were depicted as neo-colonial imperialists determined to undermine Kenyan sovereignty. Carefully constructing a siege mentality around their Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities, Ruto and Kenyatta hit upon a powerful way to emphasise the dividing line between “them” and “us”.
This narrative was particularly important for Kenyatta because it helped to compensate for some of his potential weaknesses as a candidate. There were two big dangers for the president in the run up to 2013. The first was that his vast wealth would make him vulnerable to an opposition campaign focussing on inequality and land alienation. The second was that he would struggle to mobilize support within his own community following his poor showing in the 2002 election when he was widely viewed to be a puppet of the Moi regime.
Against this backdrop, Kenyatta’s prosecution by the ICC was an electoral boon. In addition to emphasising his claim to be a defender of Kikuyu interests, and so rehabilitating Kenyatta within his own community, the campaign’s focus on sovereignty enabled Jubilee to deflect attention away from more problematic issues.
Hearts and minds
The challenge for both Odinga and Kenyatta in 2017 is that their most effective campaign slogans of the past are no longer relevant. On the one hand, Odinga’s team will sound tired and repetitive if he speaks too much about devolution, especially as it doesn’t seem like the government has any plans to close down the counties. On the other, Kenyatta’s camp can no longer hope to engender a siege mentality because the International Criminal Court proceedings have gone away and international donors have been careful to play a less interventionist role.
President Kenyatta’s team was quick to recognize this, and responded by rotating their campaign through 180 degrees. Whereas Jubilee’s message in 2013 was divisive and confrontational, more recently the government has used its transition from a coalition to a party to push the idea that it is an inclusive party ruling in the interests of all. The main slogans that Jubilee has adopted – Tuko Pamoja, Building a better Kenya, and so on – all reflect this change of focus.
For their part, the Odinga camp have fallen back on classic opposition tropes that are used by parties around the world, emphasising the value of change and the strength of their support base in an attempt to persuade Kenyans that victory is possible. The catchphrases used by leaders of the National Super Alliance (NASA) – Ten Million Strong, Vindi Vichenjanga, and so on – all speak to this theme.
But while both sides have clearly thought long and hard about their messaging, neither has yet hit upon a narrative that resonates beyond their heartlands. Although they will deny it in public, this point is understood by the public relations teams working for Jubilee and NASA – some of whom are starting to worry. Given this, it will not be surprising if the limited penetration of leaders’ slogans inspires a change in the way the campaign is fought over the next month. As the candidates scramble to capture swing voters and make sure that their supporters go to the polls, the amount of money spent on vote buying, and the amount of time devoted to negative campaigning, is likely to increase.
What does this tell us about Kenyan politics?
The struggle of both sides to effectively frame their message tells us something important about Kenyan politics: ideas matter. Why else would the government be spending so much money on hiring foreign consultants to help them get the message right?
Some people will be very resistant to this argument. They will say that Kenyan politics is all about ethnicity and that all you need to be able to do is add up the size of the different communities and you can tell who is going to win. But while this is a popular refrain, it is not – and never has been – entirely true.
Ethnicity is, of course, one of the most significant building blocks of Kenyan politics, but it is not the only one. Even if people are predisposed to support you because of your ethnicity, mobilizing voters is harder if you fail to capture their hearts and minds. As Musalia Mudavadi found to his cost in 2013 when he failed to secure a majority of votes in Luhya areas, ethnicity does not get you very far if you don’t have credibility. Ngala Chome’s analysis of the success of Mike Sonko demonstrates this point well: Sonko lacks “significant ethnic capital” in Nairobi, yet this has not undermined his rise to power.
The electoral fortunes of Kenyatta and Odinga are further evidence of the importance of ideas. Getting the message right helped to turn Uhuru from a political also-ran into the president, while Raila’s most rhetorically effective campaign was the one in which he out-mobilized a sitting president.
It is important to note that this argument should not be taken to imply that politics in Kenya is driven by ideology or that voters spend their time reading party manifestos. Successful messages often resonate precisely because they play on pre-existing stereotypes and tap into the hopes and fears of specific communities. In this sense, the power of political ideas cannot be separated from the underlying reality of ethnic politics, gives them their strength. However, the fact that ideas, messages and identities are deeply intertwined does not mean that the ideas themselves are not important, or that politicians can win elections without them.
Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at Birmingham University.
This piece was first published in the Sunday Nation.