Electoral Conflict In Kenya: Understanding The Role Of National And Social Media

In the 1990s, the transformation of the Kenyan political system from a one-party to a multi-party state intensified the problems associated with ethnic violence among tribes. The system emerged with the 1992 General Elections, through which established major parties, founded on tribal lines, fuelled the already strong conflictual relations among different ethnic groups.

The elections of 2007 revealed the intensity of this problem, with post-election violence leading to approximately 15,000 deaths, 3,000 rapes, and 300,000 people were left internally displaced. In light of this background, the General Election, which is to be held in August 2017, presents a special challenge to the Kenyan public. This challenge will be to mitigate ethnic violence by disrupting the bias of a tribal vote and promoting a more democratic voting attitude. The realization of this objective would, hopefully, limit ethnic fights associated with electoral competition and promote the construction of a more inclusive and democratic political system.

Meanwhile, the role of both national and social media is crucial for restricting the electoral conflict, especially considering that, in the past decades, both have been profoundly controlled by the government. According to Reports Without Borders, “Kenya has seen a slow erosion of media freedom in recent years. Security concerns, resulting above all from attacks by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, were used in 2016 as grounds for restricting freedom of information.”

Although the 2010 Constitutions guaranteed freedom of information, on several occasions, there were occurrences of state-orchestrated intimidation of journalists, as well as the production of national state security legislation, which have prevented media platforms from accessing information related to political decision-making. For example, The Security Laws Amendment Act of 2014 was aimed at restricting media freedom for the sake of national security. As well, in 2015, the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Joseph Ole Nkaissery, warned journalists that they would be arrested if they reported on the balance account of his ministry.

Over the past few months, during the campaign for the primary elections of party candidates, several of the aspirants have used national media to spread the fake news about their competitors’ actions, thereby alimenting violence among different factions. In April, the MP Isaac Mwuara accused his political rival of attempting to murder him, which contributed to disorder and clashes in Kiambu County. A few days earlier, one of the candidates for the Kabete constituency staged his own kidnapping, which led to further violence.

On another note, social media has also been crucial during the primary elections. During the chaos of the electoral campaign, the more widespread use of social media had the double effect of getting people closer to political issues and reinforcing the contention among ethnic lines. As such, social media has been a fundamental catalyst for political activity, especially among young people. According to The Standard, “With the majority of Kenyan voters being youthful, digitally literate, and with access to smartphones and the internet, the candidates to beat in the August polls will be the ones who effectively use social media.” The latest annual report by Nendo, “The State of the Internet in Kenya 2016,” affirmed that there are 6.1 million Kenyans on Facebook, and up to 1.8 million users registered in 2015. As well, “The number of monthly active users on Twitter stands at 2.2 million with a million daily active users.”

Moreover, an analysis of social media behaviour in Kenya by the World Web Foundation shows that the presidential race between the two candidates, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, is still very much focused on ethnic lines as demonstrated by the candidates’ use of social media to appeal to the portion of the electorate associated with their tribal origins. Social media has often served as a theatre of insults and has enabled the spreading of fake news and organized violence. Already, during the primary elections, citizens used social media to coordinate and spread the word about violent outbreaks. For example, this happened during an attack to the nomination exercise in Migori County by a group of armed men and when supporters of Governor Joseph Ndathi clashed at a prayer at Kirynga Stadium.

With that said, both Kenyan national and social media have so far proven to be a catalyst for ethnic violence associated with electoral conflict. Nonetheless, new platforms are emerging to promote dialogue among the electorate based on concrete issues, such as media freedom, economic reallocation of resources, and social displacements. For instance, the Kenya Editor Guild was founded as a not-for-profit organization that brings together broadcast and print media editors to defend media independence and promotes democratic values. As well, on social media, several young people have gathered to promote anti-tribalism. The Tribeless Alliance, which was founded by Wanjiku Kihika, has promoted the hashtag #TribelessYouth as a statement for a more democratic Kenya that is “less focused on stupid traditional ideologies which have no impact on life.” These experiences show us that a portion of the Kenyan electorate is willing to move past the ethnic lines of political competition and that both national and social media could have an important role in promoting a more stable and peaceful campaign for the elections in August. Nonetheless, the country is still very much trapped in the long-rooted dynamics of political corruption and ethnic violence, and it will take more than a hashtag or an elite journalistic association to tear them down.

Benedetta Zocchi