In the run-up to the 2013 elections, the issue of “foreign influence” dominated the presidential campaigns.
The winning Jubilee ticket of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto portrayed their cases at the International Criminal Court as an attack on Kenya’s sovereignty that had the tacit support of the Opposition.
It did not help matters that foreign diplomats weighed in on the matter, notably US Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson’s “choices have consequences” warning against voting in the Jubilee candidates.
In the run-up to this year’s elections, the “foreign influence” agenda seems to be gaining ground. President Kenyatta set the ball rolling on Jamhuri Day when he claimed some foreign powers were working with some non-governmental organisations to influence the elections through funding civic education and related programmes.
His political lieutenants, led by Leader of the Majority in the National Assembly Aden Duale, quickly picked this up. They singled out the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and painted Cord leader Raila Odinga as a “puppet” of the West.
The merits or demerits of the President’s claims notwithstanding, the Jubilee administration is clearly alarmed enough to shout about the supposed foreign influence, including US-funded civic education programmes.
“We shall use all that we have at our disposal, and whatever else we can lay our hands on, including rallying our people, to fight against the possibility of the West installing a puppet president on Kenyans,” said Mr Duale, pointing back to the 2013 elections.
The Majority Leader claims that in the last election, high-ranking US State Department Secretary officials were part of the wider scheme by “outsiders” to lock out Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto for their alleged involvement in the 2007/2008 post-election violence — something the ICC has since cleared them of.
It follows that Jubilee equally views the activities of NGOs funded by the US and other Western governments with suspicion. It is a case of once bitten twice shy, said Mr Duale. The carryover of the 2013 campaigns has continued to play out in the African Union stage as Kenya rallies the rest of the continent against ICC.
However, Senate Minority Leader Moses Wetang’ula said that Jubilee is simply panicking.
“They cannot run their campaigns on the platform of governance because they have terribly misgoverned and looted public coffers over the past four years. They cannot campaign on account of development because there has been none and where there has been a trace of it, it has been totally skewed in favour of so-called Jubilee zones. Neither can they campaign on the platform of national cohesion because theirs is a bedrock of tribalism,” he said.
Mr Wetang’ula added that the “foreign influence” factor was merely a campaign gimmick to rally support against imagined external aggressors.
“They have found an excuse in innocent foreigners, who cannot defend themselves, and whom they are now treating as their bogeyman,” he said.
Mr Duale viewed voter education carried out by sections of the civil society as aimed at persuading people to vote in a certain way. Mr Wetang’ula, however, dismisses these fears as misplaced, pointing out that Western donors were out to support a process and not individuals.
International relations experts Philip Nying’uro of the University of Nairobi and Prof Macharia Munene are in agreement that the “foreign influence” factor worked fairly well for Jubilee in creating a siege mentality in the last election and strategists were not averse to making it a campaign issue this year.
But Prof Munene argued that this notion was informed by real fears, owing to “high interest in Kenya’s polls and open bias by London (UK), Berlin (Germany) and Washington (US) administrations against the Jubilee candidates”, who at that point were facing ICC charges.
He said the perceived bias touched the patriotic consciousness and not only gained votes for the Uhuru-Ruto ticket but also worked against Cord’s Raila Odinga, who was seen as close to the Western powers.
“But the idea of NGOs and civil societies enjoying funding from foreign nations, which the President is toying around with, lacks the same emotional package as the ICC cases. It will be difficult for Jubilee to whip up the same emotions to replicate the 2013 instance,” he said.
However, Prof Nying’uro said “foreign influence” was not the major factor in the 2013 elections, but only worked to consolidate support in the Jubilee strongholds without gaining new votes, and will not gain traction this year.
“In 2013 and in 2017, ethnicity remains the constant influencing factor,” he said.
Prof Nying’uro added that while the Jubilee side may use the “external influence” fears to rally support, the opposition could also gain by insisting on the importance of foreign pressure and the civil society in safeguarding “the electoral process, considering the machinery and history of the incumbency in manipulating poll results”.
Separately, Mr Duale concurred with Prof Nying’uro — that ethnicity remained a major factor in the elections.
“Our elections are shaped by ethnic realities, so the Western powers had better stop wasting their money and use it instead on more resourceful projects like building roads.”
Human rights lawyer Harun Ndubi, who has over the decades been directly involved in civic awareness programmes and other related activities, claimed the President was simply playing politics.
Mr Ndubi maintained there was clear evidence of the need for electoral civic education, considering that nearly half a million votes were discarded as spoilt in 2013, and the reality that scores of prospective new voters are hitting the 18-year mark daily. These people should be educated on the electoral process, he said.
“Jubilee is fighting off civic education because of the reality that an ignorant voter is more likely to be manipulated by the incumbency,” said Mr Ndubi.
Even as the President spearheaded the onslaught against foreign-funded NGOs, opposition chiefs including Mr Wetang’ula pointed to Jubilee’s links to the Chinese Communist Party. And as leader of opposition Kanu party, Mr Kenyatta was also among the first party bosses to launch a strategic plan for his party in 2005, courtesy of foreign aid.
The colourful event at Bomas of Kenya was courtesy of the Institute of Education and Democracy (IED).
“Our President needs to appreciate that being in opposition, as he once was, or a member of the civil society or religious group, is not a crime,” said Mr Ndubi.
President Daniel arap Moi, was similarly protective of what he perceived to be interference with the country’s sovereignty, and was particularly uncomfortable with the activities of civil society.
Mr Moi was good at making populist statements that watered down the relevance of some of these NGOs. At the peak of the crusade for gender equity, for instance, he hit out at the Fourth Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995, describing it as a meeting of women aimed at pushing for immoral traits and un-African culture.
But behind this tough and sometimes hilarious façade, President Moi usually caved in to international pressure. The most significant was accepting multi-party democracy in 1991 after years of pressure from the West and the opposition.