SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Cambridge Analytica overrated

Election rigging is deeply embedded in our political fabric.

In Summary
  • Any Kenyan election, where possible, will be rigged in favour of one candidate or another.
  • No opposition presidential candidate can hope to beat the “deep state” at this game.

There is really no mystery when it comes to the question of what it takes to win a presidential election in Kenya. There are just three things you need to keep in mind:

First is that you must form strong regional alliances. Thus, for a presidential candidate, the single most important consideration is the choice of running mate. For this running mate absolutely has to be able to bring into the fold an additional and substantial basket of votes.

Which is why Kenyan presidential elections tend to be largely focused on the “five big tribes” – Kikuyu, Luhyia, Kalenjin, Luo and Akamba – with the other 37 tribes condemned to supporting roles.

 

The second key requirement is a successful registration drive, aimed at ensuring that every last one of your supporters gets a valid voting card. This is actually not as easy as it looks. Kenyans are “last minute people” by and large. You need a major logistics effort to get all your voters to register in good time.

It is at this point that whichever candidate has the support of what we may call the “deep state” – holders of certain key offices within the administration – tend to get an initial advantage. For the government’s lower cadre administrative personnel at the chief and sub-chief levels can be mobilised and ‘facilitated’ (ie, bribed) to ensure that there is close to 100 percent registration in the regions that support “the system’s” preferred candidate.

If, during an election campaign you told the French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, that he must have thousands of “polling agents” all over France “to protect his votes”, he would have no idea what you were talking about. But any Kenyan presidential candidate who neglects this indispensable component of effective campaign management, can be assumed to have already lost the election.

Here is the crucial calculation: Even if you have behind you a political coalition that represents a potential 15 million votes and only 50 percent of them are registered to vote (ie 7.5 million voters) you will be at a distinct disadvantage when facing off against a rival whose coalition represents 12 million votes, but whose supporters have a net registration of 80 percent (adding up to 9.6 million voters).

Third, and possibly the most crucial, is a uniquely Kenyan phenomenon that is unknown in the mature democracies of the West: You must “protect your vote”.

When Kenyan politicians say this, they mean that you must have devoted – and deeply partisan – polling agents at every polling station, as insurance against “spoilt votes” (in your strongholds) and “ballot stuffing” by your rival’s agents.

In the absence of such partisans, illiterate and semi-literate voters who support the opposition will have their ballots deliberately messed up. And meantime, improbable voter turnouts as high as 95 percent will feature routinely in the backyard of the establishment’s candidate.

If, during an election campaign you told the French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, that he must have thousands of “polling agents” all over France “to protect his votes”, he would have no idea what you were talking about. But any Kenyan presidential candidate who neglects this indispensable component of effective campaign management, can be assumed to have already lost the election.

No matter how many “social media disinformation campaigns” they come up with; and no matter how proactive they may be in “online messaging” and in the design of campaign uniforms; how can they possibly influence the final outcome in any decisive manner? It seems to me that such consultancy is just part of the smoke and mirrors of Kenyan presidential elections.

The mere necessity for such polling agents is in itself proof that any Kenyan election, where possible, will be rigged in favour of one candidate or another. That election rigging is deeply embedded in our political fabric. No opposition presidential candidate can hope to beat the “deep state” at this game. And this explains why a serving Kenyan president seeking reelection has never once lost.

Now for the past several days, leaked confidential documents from Cambridge Analytica, a notoriously Machiavellian political consultancy, have collectively suggested that their staff were the key to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in the 2017 presidential election.

The question we must then ask is this: If we assume that the foregoing analysis accurately represents the reality of Kenyan presidential elections, then where does Cambridge Analytica fit into the equation?

No matter how many “social media disinformation campaigns” they come up with; and no matter how proactive they may be in “online messaging” and in the design of campaign uniforms; how can they possibly influence the final outcome in any decisive manner?

It seems to me that such consultancy is just part of the smoke and mirrors of Kenyan presidential elections.

And that whatever the consultants from Cambridge Analytica may have believed about the value of their work in Kenya, they were just a sideshow.