Every election in a country’s life is important, but Kenya’s August 2017 polls, which came at a time of national crises on multiple fronts, were by far the most consequential Kenyans have had to take part in. The elections were utterly mishandled by the two main parties, Jubilee and NASA. They went to the polls with wrong notions about what they would achieve.
Jubilee knew that President Uhuru Kenyatta would only win a second term with some degree of rigging, only to be pushed to the limits by NASA’s ever-rising popularity. NASA on its part was totally ill-prepared for the battle it would face against an incumbent with full support of the national elite, the security establishment and the international community.
By May, Raila Odinga had his 2017 election game-plan clear in his head. I got a peek into Raila’s thinking the night after his long-time friend and adviser Salim Lone arrived in Kenya to steer the NASA campaign communications. Lone had hired me as editor of NASA-NEWS.COM, which the campaign planned to launch in the final weeks to educate coalition supporters and broaden its base. He asked me to attend his first meeting with Raila at the former Prime Minister’s home in Karen. Also in the meeting which started at 8 pm and ended at around midnight was Raila’s campaign manager, Willis Otieno.
Earlier that afternoon, NASA had held a rally at Ongata Rongai, where many Maasai leaders had expressed their community’s disappointment with Uhuru’s leadership and defected to NASA.
In the meeting, Raila talked about the state of the overall campaign, turning to Otieno briefly for information, before Lone introduced me. While I was talking, Mrs Ida Odinga walked into the room, followed shortly by Rosemary, who had recently returned from a one-month hospitalisation in South Africa. Lone took a little more time with both, leaving the three of us for about ten minutes, during which Raila mostly discussed his programme for the following week with Otieno. The secretariat was finalising rallies in western Kenya. Raila asked Otieno where they should go first between Busia, Kisumu, Migori and Homa Bay. To my utter shock, Otieno was noticeably dumbfounded, leaving Raila to talk rhetorically most of the time. I wondered how he was running a campaign as important as this.
The next morning, we arrived at the office in Lone’s taxi at about 10am. Jimi Wanjigi, who had finished a meeting, was getting out, and Lone introduced me to him at the car lot. No sooner had Lone said my first name than Wanjigi finished for him, before flatteringly saying, “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for. We are so far behind in the blogs.” Till that day, I did not have the scantiest idea how Wanjigi looked, but I was totally flummoxed by his charm. My second opinion, also formed instantaneously, was about the power he wielded in NASA. Just before he got into the car, Otieno ran over to him, treating him with what to me seemed like the respect of a schoolboy to his principal.
Jubilee’s investment on social media advocacy was evident by the sheer number of Facebook profile frames that were trending in Kenya during the election. The party had five campaign websites. It was even more preponderant on Facebook. UhuRuto Season 2; I’m Voting for Uhuru, So Should You; I’m a Farmer and I’m Voting for Uhuru; I Support Uhuru’s Education Plan; I Refuse to Let Raila Destroy Kenya; I Stand Against Violent Raila; I’m Voting for Uhuru and I Stand Against Raila’s Corruption. The number increased after nullification of the election, with new ones such as Tano Tena 2, Uhuru – Complete the Journey, and I’m Voting for Uhuru 2 coming up. NASA had much less such as NASA, I Believe Raila Odinga is Kenya’s Best Hope, NikoNaRAO, NikoNaRO, Niko Na Baba, and I Proudly Support Raila Odinga.
Late in July, NASA sponsored an opinion poll by John Zogby, the respected US psephologist, which found that Kenyans were yearning for change. Even though Uhuru was popular at a personal level, “voters were overwhelmed by issues.” Zogby also found that the race had become much closer than it had been two or three weeks earlier, and Raila, who had the momentum, had pulled ahead of Uhuru. The poll was released in a manner that generated controversy – through a leak by NASA rather than a professional briefing. NASA’s involvement rightly undercut its credibility, even though it was independently done by a local pollster, TIFA Research, presumably without even knowing it was being sponsored by NASA. A new company, TIFA had been founded by former Ipsos chief executive Maggie Ireri.
Ipsos and InfoTrak, two of the leading pollsters, had had a credibility problem, given their strong identification with Jubilee and NASA respectively. Both had undeclared contracts with the political candidates. The widespread distrust for polls allowed political players to project their own popularity. Cambridge Analytica promoted big propaganda giving Jubilee vast swathes of the country as its strongholds and classifying NASA strongholds as battlegrounds. But NASA, which did not have independent polling till June, grew from strength to strength. Former Jubilee members from Coast, Eastern, Rift Valley and even Central Kenya defected to its ranks, among them nearly ten former MPs from the Rift Valley, including former Mosop MP David Koech, who had just left his position as head of William Ruto’s party.
What NASA did not have, up until June, was an effective communication strategy to translate its resonant ideas into votes. The coalition’s communication efforts was not geared towards producing news on the issues that Kenyans cared about such as jobs, food, security and devolution.
Complaints about all manner of things It is hard to speculate on the direction the campaign would have taken without Lone, but it was generally acknowledged that it was his setting the communication tone and priorities that galvanised support for the coalition in June and July. Under Lone, NASA turned the election into a referendum of how terrible Jubilee was, building support for a candidate who would make material difference for people compared to the Uhuru regime, which was presented as looting the country dry. Salim Lone who was the head of Nasa communication team in 2017. Nasa did not have, until 2017, an effective communication strategy to translate its resonant ideas in to votes.
NASA had made many intellectuals within its ranks who produced cogent scenarios about the election. Most of these were in the Strategy Team headed by Dr David Ndii, one of Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s most renowned economists. Ndii had rich Government experience, having worked as an adviser to former Minister for Economic Planning Anyang’ Nyong’o during the NARC Government. Lone’s first goal was to finesse a campaign message. NASA was complaining about all manner of things. There was a lot that was wrong with everything in the country, but it was Lone who brought to NASA a system of choosing what to criticise. He also vetoed impractical ideas even after such had been recommended to Raila by others. For instance, ahead of Raila’s rally in Kiambu on July 4, the team organising the trip had prepared talking notes that included criticism of Uhuru not having done enough for IDPs. While such a message would resonate in Central, to the rest of Kenyans, Kikuyu IDPs had got more than enough. Lone had Raila speak about other issues of relevance to the region and other Kenyans, such as employment creation and land injustices.
Likewise, when Uhuru gave Sh10,000 to IDPs in Nyamira, some people in the secretariat were laughing it off as a desperate measure, but Lone, aware that there were many Kenyans in Kisii and elsewhere whose lives could be transformed by Sh10,000, shifted the question to Jubilee’s opportunism. He was conscious that Raila, who had been Prime Minister for five years, had to criticise Uhuru only in areas where Kenyans knew he would do better than the President. Towards the end of June, the manifesto launch was coming up, a date had been set but Lone had not seen the document. He received it just a few days to the planned launch on June 19 and, struck by its bluntness, he immediately asked Raila that the launch be postponed to have it tweaked.
While the manifesto carried powerful intellectual output, it had no indicators of plans of what NASA would deliver and was also thin on the issues most important to Kenyans at the time. A small internal battle on the manifesto would turn ugly, earning the campaign negative press. After the strategy group, headed by Ndii, circulated the draft through the entire secretariat, a group led by Wanjigi edited it substantially without informing Ndii’s group, ostensibly to make it more readable and impactful. Upon seeing the mangled version of this text, which was being planned for launch, Ndii, who worked mostly from Okoa Kenya, came over to the secretariat at Church Road, Westlands, to protest the changes.
It was then that it was discovered that a team working under Wanjigi had changed the original draft. Livid, Ndii said the campaign had hired members of the strategy group because of their expertise in policy. If, as was apparent, there was another team that could do their work better, he was ready to leave the campaign that day. It was left to Lone to diplomatically explain that the difference should be resolved by the principals, all of whom held an emergency meeting the next morning with that single agenda. At that meeting, Raila asked everyone but Lone to leave so that the principals could hear his candid views and decide what to do. The meeting resolved that the two manifestos be printed, the original one by Ndii’s group, which was the main manifesto, and the one from Wanjigi’s group, which was now called the “popular” version and titled the ‘Implementation Plan’.
Like with many internal debates during the time, the differences over the manifesto leaked to the media, which wrote sensationally about NASA having two manifestos, one authored purposefully to satisfy corrupt cartels who were supporting Raila. It fed further to Jubilee’s propaganda that NASA itself was corrupt. After successfully resolving the manifesto crisis, Raila asked Lone to take charge at the secretariat, but Lone, out of recognition that he did not have the time to start the whole thing from scratch, rejected the idea. That was a week before the Presidential Debate, which Uhuru boycotted, leaving Raila to hog more than one hour of attention from seven million Kenyans who watched the debate and listened to it over the radio. Even Raila’s critics agreed he performed well.
While President Uhuru peddled many reasons for his refusal to participate in the debate, it was not lost on observers that he would be hard-pressed to defend his five-year record, which had left millions of Kenyans hungry, corruption and insecurity soaring and tribalism tearing the nation apart. To address the backlash for his missing the debate, Uhuru’s team put forth numerous defences that made his case only worse. The weakest of these claimed that the Presidential Debate Commission that organised the event had not consulted him. Raila was initially never consulted, too, but after the Commission set dates for the debate, the NASA secretariat engaged it on the format, issues, questioning and other relevant matters.
Finally, in a bid to undercut the criticism of his snub, Uhuru did a live Facebook chat with his supporters. One question that particularly delighted the media was on where and how he met his wife. “When I met her she was not the First Lady. She was an ordinary, wonderful and beautiful girl. I met her brothers. We went to the same secondary school and quickly became friends and it was through him that I managed to meet his younger sister and we started a relationship that has lasted from high school until now. I am thankful to God for that.” Notwithstanding its immense support, the NASA leadership failed to manage the dynamics of the election to bring its supporters together. Most devastating in its consequences, as testified by the loss of many NASA candidates in the General Election, was the coalition’s failure to support joint candidates in areas where they were under pressure from Jubilee. After flawed primaries, the main NASA parties, ODM and Wiper, served up unpopular candidates as if voters did not have a choice. Several strong candidates defected from the parties to run as independents.
In yet other instances, rival NASA parties fought for the same seat in crucial areas such as Coast, Kisii, Narok and North Eastern, where Jubilee, knowing it was under pressure, had identified very strong candidates – many of them lured from ODM through huge financial incentives. Independent gubernatorial candidates At one time in July, Raila was embarrassed by public fights between Kwale gubernatorial candidates Chirau Ali Mwakwere (who was running on the Wiper ticket) and Issah Chipera of ODM, during a visit there. NASA also faced challenges in Mombasa, Kakamega, Homa Bay and Kitui, all of which had strong candidates on coalition’s affiliate parties running against NASA incumbents. The Kitui governorship race cast a long shadow over NASA’s ability to reach the electorate. Outgoing Senator David Musila, who was very popular, had been rigged out of the Wiper ticket, and he joined forces with former Cabinet Minister Charity Ngilu (who was running on the affiliate NARC ticket) in a tactical campaign where they both disparaged the incumbent, Dr Julius Malombe. At one time in July, Kalonzo Musyoka, the Wiper Party leader, held a rally in the area to campaign for Malombe, only for Ngilu to storm the meeting with her supporters. NASA twice postponed rallies in Kitui County, fearing violence, and the national newspapers used that to project the coalition as being vulnerable in its own stronghold.
In Busia, Homa Bay, Nyamira, Migori and Taita Taveta counties, independent gubernatorial candidates who had resigned from ODM after controversial primaries posed serious threats to the party’s candidates, and Raila’s insistence that NASA supporters should vote only for party candidates hurt his own standing with the voters. High turnout helped Jubilee candidates win in Kisii and Maasailand, where NASA was stronger. I raised this matter with Raila at the meeting in his home. In areas where NASA was weak, the leaders did not organise constituency level groups that would get out the vote for its candidates. Such areas would have been easier to reach through youth and women leaders not contesting seats, but these were too few in the coalition.
Failed vote protection Towards August 8, all the major voices in the coalition were preoccupied with their own elections. Those who were not, like Senators Orengo and Muthama, were too engaged in the national campaign. Connecting with the youth who comprise the largest voter demographic in Kenya would be important any day, but against a Government using the youth as its main strength required that special attention be paid to this, yet most of NASA rallies were dominated by old men such as Raila, Musyoka, Mudavadi, Orengo, Muthama and Wetangula. Also lacking in the campaign was an organisational infrastructure to combine the broad vision from the top and the awesome grassroots enthusiasm to expand the electorate, inspire voters, get out the vote and protect it. It would be an understatement to say that the NASA secretariat was paralysed.
Raila had mobilised the country on a scale not previously witnessed by an opposition leader, but the secretariat that should have made his apparent victory count was totally dysfunctional. Too much attention has been paid to NASA’s failed vote protection, which in the opinion of many analysts would have been the most effective method of beating brute rigging. But much else did not work in the campaign. The secretariat is the engine of a campaign. It has the staff responsible for organising on the ground, recruiting the foot-soldiers, marshalling support and protecting the vote. The secretariat was singularly incapable of doing any of these. It was poorly resourced, which is inevitable in a country where the elite had gone on one side, but even the funds at its disposal were not well-spent.
The secretariat lacked basic facilities of a campaign hub. Most staff were required to use their own computers for office work, and most did not have nor seemed to need them. The secretariat had only one television set, two desk-top printers, one of which always broke down or had no ink, and not a single car that took staff home whenever they worked late, which should have been obvious in an election campaign. With Willis Otieno’s leadership, the staff were beset by widespread factionalism and dissension, many unsure what their duties were.
Salaries were fixed arbitrarily, with some staff who did donkey work paid half what the joyriders earned. Even the recruitment system was obscure, with the junior ranks filled mainly by friends and relatives of the Odingas. By June, out of at least a dozen staffers who identified themselves as working in communication, there was not a single one whose expertise was writing. As a matter of fact, there were only two writers in the many offices that dotted the campaign -– Raila’s long-time director of communication Dennis Onyango and Kibisu Kabatesi, who worked for Musalia Mudavadi. And both were too occupied with work for their bosses to pay attention to campaign communications. With its handicap in producing campaign material, amid the mainstream media’s commitment to help Jubilee win, none of the widely recognised Jubilee failures such as the food crisis, corruption and ethnic divisiveness translated into obvious votes for NASA. This was despite the favourable fact that, unlike 2013 when Raila was the Prime Minister and shared in Government failures, in 2017, he could project a more radical vision for the country.
For much of the time I was at the NASA Secretariat, I worked wholly with Lone, attending meetings and drafting statements which no one else was doing up that time. The campaign communication office, which was controlled by Raila’s daughter Winnie Odinga, was led by Kathleen Openda, a former news presenter who admitted in our first meeting that she had no one in her entire team who could handle stuff like writing statements.
The campaign attracted some of the best experts in their fields in the technical team but could not tap their expertise for the benefit of the overall programme of Raila’s election. Otieno, the campaign manager, was a stiff personality who had no concrete opinions on many issues. Often, when staff members accused him of stalling their initiatives, his standard answer was to blame lack of finances, which was a real challenge in the campaign. It was widely believed that the funds NASA had were provided by Raila and Wanjigi, who had a larger-than-life presence in the campaign. Even the little funds NASA had access to were not optimally spent. The campaign bought some things it did not need but lacked money for the tools that were vital to performance.
For the news operation that I was hired to manage, we did not get the money to start for weeks. After we eventually received some funds and bought second hand laptops, we only later learnt that new computers that had been bought months earlier were kept in a disused office in the secretariat. Likewise, most staff members, including party agents, grassroots mobilisers and even the journalists who worked on NASA-NEWS.COM, were not paid their dues despite repeated promises. Otieno’s authority was not adequately recognised by Winnie Odinga.
One day in June, campaign consultants from the Aristotle Group from the US were introduced to the staff by then Kisumu Senator Anyang’ Nyong’o who spoke briefly about the campaign, then left the floor to Otieno to introduce secretariat members. When Otieno reached Winnie, he simply said, “This is Winnie Odinga, also a member of the team”. Winnie cut him short, saying, “I am not in his team; he is the one who is in my team.” When Lone arrived in Kenya, he instantly recognised that Otieno, despite being an astute lawyer, was not suited for the job. He said so first to Wanjigi and then Raila and Mudavadi. He proposed that the campaign manager give way to someone with more political campaign experience. His proposal was met with approval. Anyang’ Nyong’o, who was then running for Kisumu governorship but helping the secretariat with political strategy, recommended Joe Ager, a long-time Raila associate, who was immediately hired.
Everything unravelling The next four weeks would be marked by a cold war between Otieno and Ager that became evident to most staffers as time wore on. The war also broke out in the open during the appointment of NASA chief agents for the presidential election, when Ager appointed Orengo and Magaya, only for Otieno to reverse the action by appointing Mudavadi and Olga Karani, when the earlier appointments had been reported by media.
In Raila’s political work, preference is usually given to those who either have stuck with the leader for years or the so-called Second Liberation heroes, who suffered at the hands of KANU dictatorship in the 1980s. The agents’ recruitment was a sensitive affair, with apprehension about Jubilee’s plan to infiltrate it, according to Wafula Buke at the time. A few days to the election, these failures bore heavily on the team, with everything unravelling. While at the secretariat on August 5, I called Buke aside and asked about agents. He talked big and explained the problems.
I knew there would be no agents. A few weeks to the election, NASA got information that Jubilee was planning to reject results from NASA strongholds should it lose. The law provided that if an agent rejected constituency results, he could go to the High Court and have results excluded from the final tally until after the election. Jubilee had hired as its constituency agents in NASA strongholds lawyers who were practising advocates. In the event of disputation, the agents were to be facilitated to exclude results from the constituencies. NASA did not have a similar plan. It is perhaps the absence of NASA agents in key Jubilee constituencies that allowed Constituency Returning Officers to operate with the impunity that was unearthed at the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that many CROs did not announce results as required by law, there was not a single area in which NASA led a court case challenging the process as provided for in law. It was a huge weakness on NASA’s side, since the IEBC’s intention to fix the election was evident for months before August 8.
NASA’s method of preventing rigging was through seeking court interpretations on what the legal process entailed, given IEBC’s repeated violations of the law. The coalition went on a litigation spree that registered massive gains as well as a few losses. The main concern was with procurement of ballot printing tender to Al Ghurair, a company associated with the local elites, which NASA feared would print extra ballot papers to be used in topping up Uhuru’s votes. Copyright. John Onyando,
2018. Published by Free Press Publishers Limited Nairobi.