The death of Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, and the Oscar Awards in the US around the same time last week showed some contrasting fortunes for television.
Hollywood, the world’s movie capital, had to contend with the grim reality of audiences migrating to social media and other digital platforms.
TV ratings for the popular Oscars fell about 20 per cent. In Kenya, where the digital revolution has also affected broadcasters, coverage of the events related to the death of Moi saw TV viewership go through the roof.
No credible market survey data has been released yet. But going by the 24-hour coverage dedicated to the Moi Farewell Show by all the major local TV stations, its ratings could easily vie for a decades record.
For a man whose popularity had sharply fallen in the twilight years of his rule and had mud thrown at him by a section of the crowd on the day he handed over to his successor, the sheer surge of interest in his death was something of a paradox.
Yet it also demonstrated the power of nostalgia. The youngest voters in the 2002 General Election when Moi retired or was last actively involved in a campaign are 35 years old.
According to census data, close to a quarter of Kenyans are 35 years and above, an age group that experienced the Moi presidency as adults.
Whatever perceptions they had of the man from Sacho and his 24 years of Nyayo rule, the memories were always going to come flooding back.
Of course the Moi Farewell Show also benefited from a ready script written by the man himself. For the better part of his rule, the Moi regime largely controlled the tools of information, with the public broadcaster dominating the airwaves.
Telecommunications and broadcasting were liberalised in a major way in Kenya only in 1998, which was 20 years into the Moi presidency.
In the absence of independent media to put him under scrutiny, a majority of Kenyans took Moi’s word, amplified by the Voice of Kenya (VoK) and its successor KBC, for plain truth.
Lee Njiru, the former president’s press secretary, recently narrated how he would spin information to make Moi look better than he was.
“My job was not to say what the president said, but what he meant,” Mr Njiru said. The result of such mythmaking is that Moi ended up being praised for everything, including his obvious failures.
His free milk programme in primary schools and soil conservation efforts, for example, have been depicted as runaway successes when in fact there is very little to show for them.
By the time he left power, even KCC, the State processor that produced that milk, had collapsed due to looting.
As for the famed gabions he was shown helping construct along gullies in places like West Pokot, they hardly ever outlasted a week of rainfall due to dodgy engineering.
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