They are wondering out there whether Kenya will burn or not after 2012 poll

Wednesday May 18 2011

I am at a conference on social media and democracy/governance in West Sussex. There were two black faces at the conference (although the other brother is no longer based in Africa).

He left early, leaving me feeling lonely, but everything still went great because the room was full of people who had worked, lived, or have studied Africa closely.

And perhaps no other country was referred to frequently as Kenya. It was mostly for good reasons — innovation in media and technologies.

There were many references to the crowd-sourcing platform, Ushahidi, which Kenya gave the world and is now widely used, (it did a wonderful job last year monitoring the Kenya constitution referendum), Safaricom’s groundbreaking M-Pesa, and so forth.

Then I understood further what globalisation and the greater opening up African societies of the past 20 years is doing.

There are armies of young Europeans and Americans who come to Africa, live deep in the villages, put in one to three years, research, get involved in civil society, and then move on.


Usually, as I realised, to a neighbouring country. Nearly all the folks I had who had worked in Tanzania, moved on to also put in a year or so in Kenya or Uganda, and vice versa. This gives them regional knowledge.

Also, it is surprising how many small to medium organisations and venture enterprises in the West help start up many of the digital initiatives like Uchaguzi, and support the Ushahidis of Africa once they get started.

The sum of it is that collectively at these conferences, unlike say 10 to 15 years, you can have a fairly thoughtful and informed discussion without a single African in the room. The meaning of this is troubling, but we shall not dwell on it.

On two occasions I was cornered, both times to comment on the fears that in the elections of 2012, Kenya will descend into the bloody madness that followed the dispute over the December 2007 elections.

In both cases, my interrogators were particularly concerned about what they all saw as the destructive role of the media in fanning the post-election violence.

My take was that the risks of violence are still high. Ethnic political entrepreneurs, after all, are still very active in Kenyan politics.

However, specifically on the media, my line was that quite a few editors and reporters learnt from the mistakes of 2007/2008.

Though there are still bad apples among us, I sense that many more media managers and editors are aware that we have one last shot at this.

With the growing popularity of blogs, a new generation of Kenyan websites, and Twitter and Facebook, I think if some of the media become battle-wielding ethnic warriors in 2012, our audiences will abandon us and never return.

Secondly, though the main media in Kenya claim to be national, they are not in reality.

As this column argued before, these media primarily cover Kenya’s “Railway Belt”, where the richest and largest number of the country’s population is concentrated, and largely ignore the rest of the country — which in area comprises about 60 per cent of the country.

So while decentralisation and the new counties carry risks, they finally will force the elite media to finally be national in reality.

How? Well, today if the Local Government minister and permanent secretary are from western Kenya, and a newspaper is edited by someone from western Kenya who is their friend, he might be able to get a large chunk of the ministry’s advertisement.

So his newspaper can afford to unfairly attack the minister of Energy from Nyeri, and rail against the “Mt Kenya Mafia”.

It might cost him circulation in Nyeri, but he will make it up with the rich pickings of advertising from the Ministry of Local Government.

Under the new Constitution, nearly 85 per cent of the Local Government advertising budget will be in the counties, not Nairobi.

Now our editor from western Kenya, if he wants to get a slice of the ministry’s advertising, will no longer run a hate campaign against the governors from Central Kenya.

He has to be fairer and less ethnically prejudiced if he hopes to find commercial success. I could be wrong, but it is good to gamble on hope.

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