Ghosts of Cambridge Analytica in Kenya

by    /  April 4, 2018  / 1 Comment

A Kenyan woman casts her ballot. Image by Ben Curtis via AP.

Have European political consultancy firms and modern digital technology posed a threat to the process of free and fair elections and democracy in Africa, and particularly in Kenya? That is the question dominating the Kenyan political landscape after an undercover exposé by the British broadcast Channel 4 News about the dirty tricks of Cambridge Analytica, the British data mining firm, in Kenya. The Channel 4 News revelation shows that the controversial Cambridge Analytica was hired by the ruling Jubilee Party of Kenya prior to the chaotic August 2017 presidential election.

Mark Turnbull, the Cambridge Analytica’s Managing Director, claimed: “We have rebranded the entire party (the ruling Jubilee Party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta) twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 (participant) surveys.” Be that as it may. Even on its website the firm acknowledges conducting a large-scale voter research about “key national and local political issues, levels of trust in key politicians, voting behaviors/intentions, and preferred information channels.”

  1. Column_Tadesse
  2. This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
  3. Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.

Needless to say, the alleged Cambridge Analytica scandal in Kenya didn’t come as a surprise to Kenyans. Way before the poll, a local newspaper published a story alleging that the ruling Jubilee Party (a union of two former rival political parties of the incumbent president and deputy president) was secretly working with the same firm to rig the 2017 election. Citing the story, the main opposition- the National Super Alliance (NASA)- made the same allegation to no avail. Information about the shadowy works of Cambridge Analytica has since been sketchy until recently.

Thanks to the Channel 4 News latest exposé, the firm is now back on the spotlight. It has since sparked social media debates and provoked mixed reactions among Kenyans. NASA was quick to accuse the firm of being a criminal enterprise which tried to “subvert the people’s will” and even demanded the US and UK to probe into the matter as quickly as possible. In contrast however, the Jubilee Party downplayed the claims, while admitting that firm’s service was limited to “basically branding,but not directly.” In any case, the government’s admission confirms the existence of a dubious deal with the firm.

Negative campaigning was quintessential of Kenya’s elections even before Cambridge Analytica allegedly set foot in Kenya during the 2013 presidential election. In the prelude to the 2017 polls in particular negative advertisements that demonized the opposition flag bearer and presidential candidate Raila Odinga of NASA went viral in an unprecedented scale through social media and smartphones. At the time the Police even arrested a few people administering local WhatsApp groups by accusing them of fomenting hatred and violence through misinformation.

Particularly, the “Real Raila” video that carried the message “Stop Raila, Save Kenya… The Future of Kenya is in Your Hands” sparked huge controversy. Surprisingly, the video portrayed the veteran pro-democracy politician as sympathetic to al Shabaab, a radical terrorist group based in neighboring Somalia. The Channel 4 News report even called the video “apocalyptic” for that reason.

To the surprise of Kenyans, the chaotic August election victory of Uhuru Kenyatta was disputed by the opposition raising electronic vote rigging allegations. This in turn led to prolonged violence and bloodshed. Consequently, the Supreme Court nullified the results ordering a repeat election, which was unfortunately boycotted by the largest opposition. The controversy has tarnished the country’s thriving democracy thereby plunging it into a political deadlock yet to be resolved.

Kenya enjoys one of the fastest Internet connections in the world. Social media has thrived over the last few years thereby becoming a dominant conduit for information and disinformation. The number of Internet users has also dramatically increased. Yet alike any African country, the vast majority of voters get news from analogue TV and radio. Thanks to the use of modern electronic technology, the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC), the country’s polling body, used an electronic voting system for the August 2017 presidential poll. Election campaign expenses also rank among the highest in the world.

Despite Cambridge Analytica’s claims in Kenya, there is a lot of room for skepticism. Unlike in America or Europe, digital propaganda may not evoke as much emotion as Cambridge Analytica would’ve wrongly expected or intentionally exaggerated. Why? The main reason is that it is largely believed that the voting behavior of Kenyans is guided mainly by ethno-regional allegiance/sentiments and patronage rather than digital adverts, fake news, or negative campaigning. Ethnicity and patronage outweigh everything else when it comes to politics. Voters from the largest Kikuyu tribe are therefore always expected to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta no matter what, whereas the third largest Lou tribe votes for Raila Odinga.

One can therefore believe that there may be too much bravado on the part of Cambridge Analytica to market itself. That the firm’s executives boasted about their role to an undercover reporter disguisedly posed as a Sri Lankan politician seeking its services speaks volumes. Yet no one can rule out entirely the possibility that the firm’s dirty works may have swayed the election outcome until an independent investigation into the matter is done. Without investigation no conclusive evidence may emerge to prove that any Kenyan law was gravely violated by Cambridge Analytica’s works.

Interestingly, the Cambridge Analytica’s alleged scandal came after Kenya’s political storm partially subsided. In a dramatic twist the two fierce rivals, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, declared an ambiguous reconciliation pact a week or so earlier. No surprises however because back stage, surprising political intrigues and changes of alliances are quite common among Kenyan politicians. Despite Odinga’s vow to sue Facebook and Cambridge Analytica for the “devilish propaganda” waged against him, he and his Orange Democratic Movement (the nucleus member of the NASA coalition) may not therefore risk intensifying attacks against the government for hiring the shadowy firm to rig the elections. Doing so will without a doubt jeopardize what any see as a compromise pact, and Odinga’s new found political middle ground.

However, details of the ambiguous deal remain open to speculation. The fact that Odinga made the secret deal without the knowledge and consent of the other three NASA coalition ember parties may in part explain the secrecy. It is therefore true that Odinga is at the crossroads now: on the one hand, his unilateral move has spurred infighting within the NASA coalition to the point of its dissolution. On the other hand, the ageing Odinga is under mounting pressure from within and without to put an end to his unsuccessful four presidential bids and in turn leave a positive legacy of unifying the polarized country.

Questions still linger however. Will the pact hold and ensure electoral justice and perhaps constitutional reform long espoused by Raila Odinga and his party NASA? Will the duo be able to heal Kenya’s political wounds, inherited from their respective rival founding fathers of the republic? Most Kenyans don’t seem sure about it.

Against this backdrop, I can say that Cambridge Analytica’s alleged scandal showcases that overseas political consultancy firms potentially pose two grave threats to African countries: undue digital swaying of free and fair elections and shadowy involvement in corruption and bribery. That these firms operate with the full consent of few politicians often enable them evade accountability and legal oversight. If fully confirmed, Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenya’s election is a strong reminder that democracy defenders should remain wary of Europe’s shadowy consultancy firms and the digital manipulation they employ in the continent. Most African countries already have local bad politicians with a reputation of staging fake elections or stealing votes from the electorate in broad daylight.

Whereas Nigeria’s government has vowed to investigate Cambridge Analytica’s improper involvement in the Nigeria’s elections in 2007 and 2015 the Kenyan government unsurprisingly has preferred to downplay the allegation altogether. That doesn’t make the Nigerian government more accountable however because the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who was an opposition candidate in 2015, was supposedly the target of the firm’s alleged dirty works.

In the years ahead two ghosts will therefore continue to haunt Kenyans. Firstly, the dozens of civilian protesters killed by security forces in the aftermath of the disputed polls in August and October have never got justice at all. Notwithstanding demands from the opposition the families of the those killed by the Police have received no state compensation at all. Secondly, the alleged manipulative interference of Cambridge Analytica will increasingly make them lose trust in politicians and the constitutional and electoral system which they believe will eventually transform their country to a full-fledged vibrant democracy.

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