Social media and post-election crisis in Kenva (2007/8 and 2017)
Kenyan elections, like elections in many other African countries, are often violent owing to ethnic polarisation and the winner-takes-all system of politics. Kenya ushered in a new constitution in 2010, after the controversial 2007 elections (Khadiagala 2008) that led to the deadliest post-election violence in the country’s history. More than 1000 people died, and several thousand others were displaced, despite much expectation, promise and hope for peaceful elections. Sadly, the country seemed to be returning to dictatorship judging by the State-sponsored media crackdown during the 2017 elections. As in 2007, mainstream TV stations were switched off by the Communication Authority of Kenya to prevent Kenyans from watching live coverage of the swearing in of the opposition leader as “The People’s President”, citing security concerns.
Even though the ban was challenged in the High Court, which revoked the decision, the government ignored the ruling, deepening the electoral crisis. It is during such electoral crises that social media has proven to be “an alternative medium for citizen communication or participatory journalism”. Some scholars argue that social media has important implications for the process of dcmocratisa- tion in Kenya (Makinen and Kuira 2008).
This chapter argues that the conduct of the government in the 2007/8 and 2017 elections was characterised by fraud, violence and human rights abuses coupled with intimidation of the judicial system, social media users and total media shutdown. This left Kenya in a volatile situation regarding its democratic experiment, leading to dangerously emotional ethnic discussions on social media platforms that obscured the truth about the negative contribution of corruption and inequality to project Kenya (nation-building).
Corruption makes citizens dissatisfied with neo-liberal politics, as witnessed in the wholesale repeat election boycott in Kenya in 2017. Therefore, corruption remains the biggest threat to Kenya’s democracy. Overtly, it may appear as if it is tribal politics but when covertly and critically examined, violence usually flares up every electoral cycle due to electoral injustice perpetrated by corrupt politicians. State politicians exploit ethnic differences on social media using misinformation (Tiku 2018) and division for political mileage.
Such actions by State political actors call for more independence and robust truth telling from African media, free from state influence and control unlike the current media enterprise which is vulnerable to political and economic manipulation. The composition of this vision of the media is a controversial subject in media scholarship and is beyond the scope of this paper. However, in an environment where the media is largely influenced by the state, citizen journalism has become popular, replacing traditional journalism through social media platforms that represent the “will of the people”. In such instances, social media becomes the “new mainstream media”, an avenue and space in which Kenyans engage in uncomfortable discussions that could make them benefit from freedom and liberal ideas provided in a democratic political system. But at the same time, social media exposes the double standards and hypocritical nature of both the elites in Kenya and the international community who masquerade as champions of global democracy and human rights.
Social media can also be exploited by the State to create repressive regimes, evidenced in countries like Cameroon where mobile twitting capabilities have been shut down once for fear of revolution; Swaziland or Eswathini2 where King Mswati has issued threats directed at the liberal use of Facebook and Twitter threats; the Democratic Republic of Congo where SMS texting was once disabled in the lead-up to the 2011 elections; and Ethiopia where skyping may lead to
15 years in prison. Social media can also be used to facilitate greater communication for groups that advocate violence. For instance, terrorist organisations in Africa like al-Shabaab have launched their own Twitter handle and use tools such as Facebook for recruitment, among other things.
Social media tools such as wikis, blogs, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Mashups were used to share information about the Kenyan electoral crises both in 2007/8 and in 2017. Discussion forums emerged on Flickr.com aimed at promoting peace and unity as did relevant video files on YouTube.com. In 2007, citizens approached social media as a way to get involved, particularly after violence erupted (Makinen and Kuira 2008). According to Thinkersroom blog 2008, citizens were determined to have a first-hand account unlike that being reported by traditional media. Kenyans chose to take active roles as citizen journalists, reporting on the ongoing situation and expressing their thoughts online in sites such as Mashada.com, Kwani.org, Thinkersroom.com, Afromusing.com and Allafrica. com. “Social media generated an alternative public sphere which widened the perspective about the 2007/8 crisis” (ibid) and enabled a new kind of citizen participation to emerge which allowed for horizontal information sharing.
Bloggers criticised the state crackdown and blamed politicians in the aftermath of both the 2007/8 and 2017 elections for inciting ethnic hate speech, with remarks such as “Luo Mass Action” used to describe genuine protesters. Under the rubric of “digital activists”, social media continued to play a critical role in instances where citizen reporters presented grassroots views that were more diverse than those emerging from mainstream media. For example, Ory Okolloh who started Mzalendo, a digital activists’ website, states that her website “aims to open up parliament and demonstrate it is both possible and necessary for Kenyans to demand and expect more accountability from public institutions” (Makinen and Kuira 2008). She was behind the idea of mapping violence across the country that was later picked up by Ushahidi.com. This enabled people to share information about violence and seek help through ordinary text messaging. Digital technology and social media can therefore lead to the development of people-centred early warning mechanisms such as crowdsourcing to empower people and communities to respond to threats. Kenyans utilised a wide variety of platforms for peacebuilding after post-election violence, including Uwiano platform for peace, Ushahidi, Facebook pages such as elections Witness Kenya and Umati or Crowd Monitoring Project, and the Sentinel and iHub project in 2017 called Una Hakika (are you sure?), a mobile phone-based information service to monitor spread of rumours and contain them (Mutahi and Kimari 2017).
Using the experiences of the 2007/8 elections and the 2017 elections, this chapter argues that social media is a double-edged sword which can be used both for peace and for conflict. Evidence suggests some Kenyans used social media to incite hatred and violence during the 2007/8 and 2017 elections. It is therefore critical to explore such historical nuances and attendant ecological dynamics that lead to electoral conflict in order to come up with ways in which social media can be exploited for peacebuilding and stability by both citizens, politicians and civil society'. This can be possible not only through interventions that seek to regulate hate and incendiary messages circulated through popular social media platforms but also through facilitated digital depolarising roles for peacebuilding.
Some blogs, for example, were used as channels for biased and tribal information and the spread of rumours and propaganda. In 2007, Mashada was used to such an extent that, owing to its inability to control the spread of hateful messages on the site (ibid), the moderators had to shut it down to cool the temperatures and put up a new site called “I have no Tribe”. Similarly, in 2017, Facebook was largely used for ethnic polarisation and the spread of disinformation and fake news. According to the National Human Rights Commission, during the 2007/8 clashes, mobile phone text messaging was a powerful tool for organising vigilante groups and mobs (Jorgic 2013).
Kenyans are increasingly relying on social media. Even though privately owned media are quite visible and robust, their role is becoming increasingly questionable through relationships with elite politicians and businessmen who influence the agenda using propaganda. The most important issue is how social media has opened up space for citizen participation. Mobile phone applications have enabled citizens to share helpful information and to help relatives in risky areas. Bloggers have worked towards more transparency and information accessibility. However, the State, threatened by the increased level of liberty afforded through social media spaces, has worked equally hard to suppress opposition through draconian laws.
In assessing Kenya’s quest for electoral democracy, it appears the 2010 constitution was prematurely celebrated by the political class. It is applied selectively, without an understanding of what constitutes constitutional democracy. Constitutional democracy is about respect for independent State institutions that mutually co-exist to drive governance. Although computer and social media use of legislation is a welcome move, any policy should be created in a way that does not violate citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. A better approach would be one that encourages self-regulative mechanisms.
The role of the most crucial state institutions such as law enforcement, the legislature and the judiciary should not be taken for granted. In fact, this is one of the questions coming up in the current clamour for a referendum. It is important to remember that, as happened in 2017, Kenya had a similar hotly contested election in 2013 that was petitioned in the Supreme Court of Kenya. The Court ruled that Uhuru Kenyatta was validly elected, a decision that was not well received among the local and international jurisprudence enterprise. However, the ruling paved the way for more advanced jurisprudence in 2017 that encouraged the Supreme Court of Kenya to nullify the election of a sitting President and, in strict conformity with the law, order fresh elections which the opposition boycotted.
Sadly, this landmark ruling was watered down when the same court failed to hear a crucial case a day before the repeat presidential elections on October 26, 2017, regarding the legality and the implications of the opposition’s withdrawal. The court failed to raise a quorum due to alleged State (executive) intimidation. Legislation introduced post-2017 such as the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Bill,3 some have argued, has impacted negatively on freedom of expression.