It always comes as a surprise to me when a politician says something that is obviously not true, and there is an outpouring of anger over the lie that this elected leader has just told.
The question I am often tempted to ask is, “How do you think he got elected in the first place?”
For a gift for misrepresentation and exaggeration seems to be one of the keys to political success in Kenya.
But that is just one side of the coin. The other side is that voters have grown to be very cunning in this country, and feel no shame in leading on a candidate who they know in their hearts they have no intention of voting for.
So long as there is hope that a candidate’s campaign may yield some tangible benefits – or even just the light entertainment that the political roadshows offer – the crowds will cheer very loudly in a manner easily interpreted as a proof of political strength.
It is easy to be impressed – or even intimidated – by the “mammoth crowds” that turn up to cheer the leading presidential candidates when they hold political rallies in any corner of the country. But whether these crowds actually reflect the likely voter turnout for any particular candidate is an open question.
I remember a coastal political leader who many years ago, after a particularly humiliating defeat, told me: “In this country, you can never be sure who will vote for you. Not the young men who clamber on top of a pick-up every day to accompany you on your campaigns; not the women who virtually take up residence in your home to cook for visitors; not even your own polling agents; you can never know for sure what is really going on in their minds.”
Oddly enough, this is a lesson that we as a country have had to learn not once, but twice, in the course of the Uhuru Kenyatta presidency.
First, was when our government led a furious war of delegitimisation against the International Criminal Court, at a time when the ink was barely dry on Uhuru’s oath of office.
In an unusually bold speech in Addis Ababa, before the gathered heads of state of the African Union, Uhuru spoke of the ICC having been reduced to being “the toy of declining imperial powers”.
There were those within Kenya who considered this a knock-out blow against the ICC, which would surely be followed by a mass walkout by African nations from the global court. Instead we find that not only has there been no such walkout, but even Kenya itself has shown no real interest in placing its citizens beyond the jurisdiction of the ICC.
Even more dramatic and humiliating was the defeat of Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohamed, in her bid to be the AU Commission chairperson. After months of vigorous campaigns all over Africa by the elite of the Uhuru Cabinet, we were assured that Mohamed’s election had been sealed and that the voting at the AU summit in Addis Ababa would be a mere formality.
Then came the surprise that Mohamed had lost to one Moussa Muhamat of Chad. Chad of all places!
Amina did not lose to a Nigerian, or a South African or an Egyptian – the African countries against which Kenya routinely benchmarks its influence on the continent – but to a man from Chad. A country many Kenyans consider to be more or less a failed state, and one which certainly had not sent its top leaders flying all over the continent to garner support for their candidate.
Making things worse is that it was then revealed that some of our “brother nations” within the East African region had not supported the Kenyan candidate at all, despite their earlier pledges of regional solidarity.
So, as we head towards the August 8 general election, I think each and every candidate should learn from our consecutive humiliations at the continental level; prepare for unwelcome surprises, in one form or another; and take this lesson to heart: “You can never really know in advance, who will vote for you”.