This week marks one year since the final collapse of the cases against six Kenyans indicted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the violence that rocked the country in the aftermath of the 2007 elections.
Kenyans are said to “love politics”; it dominates our public conversations all through the year, and even campaign season begins, in practical terms, just after a winner is declared from the last election.
This means politicians are the real bona fide Kenyan celebrities, not musicians, actors, filmmakers or other members of the creative class as is the case in other countries – African and otherwise.
With politics taking up so much of the public imagination and attention, you might think that battle lines are clearly drawn in Kenya – after all, this is said to be a polarised country, politically and ethnically.
But data from democracy and governance researchers, Afrobarometer, suggests that the lines are not as clear-cut as you might expect – even on something as basic as whether this country is a democracy, and whether they are satisfied with how democracy works in this country.
It suggests that there is a whole segment of the Kenyan population unable to gauge or measure the quality of governance in the country – despite the deluge of political conversations, coverage and public commentary.
This is not merely a communications failure, although President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration might think so, launching an online portal last week which it says highlights Jubilee’s achievements over the past four years.
The truthfulness of the portal’s highlights aside, it is based on the assumption that with more information, Kenyans will better assess government’s performance, and will reward Kenyatta’s team with a second term in office – in other words, that information about good performance will move voting behaviour in your favour.
Even more intriguing is how this group of Kenyans who say they “don’t know” whether the country is a democracy, and can’t say whether they are satisfied with it, has grown over the past 15 years in Kenya, since the first round of surveys that asked this question in 2002/2003.
Those were the heady years of Mwai Kibaki’s administration, the first democratic transition in Kenyan history. Just 3.8 per cent said they didn’t know if Kenya was a democracy, and only 5.1 per cent couldn’t say if they were satisfied.
Nearly two-thirds (63.7 per cent) thought it was a democracy with minor problems, and almost eight in 10 (78.3 per cent) were fairly, or very satisfied with how democracy works in this Kenya.
But by 2014/2015, a full 13.5 per cent now say they don’t know whether Kenya is a democracy or not, and nearly a fifth (19.4 per cent) say they don’t know whether they are satisfied or not. This is surprising, considering the expansion of the democratic space, media, communications and the Internet – there is more information reaching the public more than ever before, more room for discussions, persuasion and convincing.
Yet, one in five Kenyans is not confident enough to give even a roadside assessment of the quality of governance in the country.
It suggests that the public is increasingly suffering from a kind of information overload, with a real shortage of insight or analysis. The more “politics” is discussed, the less meaning one can really extract from it all.
In a way, this is good news for the Jubilee administration, which has distinguished itself among previous governments for its deft wielding of spin.
With so many Kenyans unsure of what to think or believe, those impressionable minds make fertile ground for PR and even propaganda and “fake news”.
It may seem like a lifetime ago now, but this blurring of lines and confusing of the mind began in the aftermath of the 2007/08 post-election violence.
Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, both indicted on opposite sides by ICC, joined hands, declared peace, and won the highest office in the land. Coincidentally, or not, charges against both were dropped.
What is more interesting is the way the meanings of words have shape-shifted over the past ten years.
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Conceptual words like “justice”, “peace”, “unity” and even “democracy” continue to be used liberally in the public conversation, but it is increasingly less clear what they actually mean.
One year ago, all six former suspects of the Kenyan ICC cases drove triumphantly into Nakuru town and assembled at Afraha Stadium for a state-sponsored rally to celebrate the collapse of the cases and “thank Kenyans for praying for them”.
The prosecution said the cases collapsed as had been extensive political interference from Kenyan authorities, witness tampering and intimidation. Seventeen prosecution witnesses had recanted their statements or refused to testify, the rest simply could not be found.
That same stadium hosted thousands of families chased away from their homes with little more than they could carry in their arms in early 2008. The President’s Twitter handle that weekend read: “By the grace of God, justice has been done.” #AsanteKenya.
Legally, that was true – it would be totally unjust to continue a case if the prosecution had no witnesses and no testimonies.
But this was not, even by the longest stretch, justice being done. Disappearing witnesses certainly does not happen by the grace of God.
You’ve seen this blurring of lines in the region too. South Sudan was admitted into the East African Community last March. The EAC treaty requires that in considering a country’s application to join the EAC, member states shall look at adherence to “universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice”.
Yet that very week, the UN had said South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis is catastrophic and continues to worsen as warring sides are “dragging their feet” in implementing the peace deal.
A UN rights report in 2015 said that the war in South Sudan was notable (emphasis mine) for its “brutality and intensity”, including mass killings, rapes, castrations, burning people alive, and tying children together before slitting their throats, all committed by forces on both sides.
This is confusing, and suggests that a state can stand accused of mass rapes, live burnings, cannibalism, castrations and throat-slitting, yet somehow qualifying under the principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice – so words have totally lost their meaning.
This is by no means a trivial issue of mere semantics. George Orwell is famous as a novelist, primarily for the satirical classic Animal Farm, and the dark, dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Orwell was also a brilliant essayist.
Orwell, in several essays and commentaries, expertly makes the connection between degraded language and political deceit, “Political language,” he said, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
One of his most searing essays is The Prevention of Literature, in which he argues that the organised lying in a totalitarian state is not is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. “It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.”
Orwell argues that a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would have set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain pure sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.
“Totalitarian” may seem like an archaic and extreme word today, but Orwell’s point is that confusion is the wind on which an oppressive state sails – particularly the kind of country that has some level of openness, in the form of a supposedly thriving media sector and abundant information.
It is the story of Kenya today, which is hailed for being a global leader in tech, mobile penetration, internet connectivity and what seems, on surface level, to be an open and progressive society.
But there is a dark side, which begins when words lose their meaning and cease to matter.
– The writer is a journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com.