By David Wanjala
If you have never believed elections are rigged in Kenya, Thursday September 20 provided the perfect testimony. The vote in the National Assembly on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s austerity and tax proposals re-enacted the full scripts of most of our seasonal general elections, where losers are blatantly declared winners after results of peaceful voting are corrupted at the tail end of the process to the whims of a few officials entrusted with overseeing the exercise.
Of fundamental importance, however, is how the media has been exposed by the events on the floor of the National Assembly, on the role it plays in sanitising rigged elections and eventually entrenching electoral fraud.
On this occasion, it seems, Leader of Majority and MP for Garissa Town Aden Duale, alongside Leader of Minority and MP for Gwassi, the rookie in the scheme of things, John Mbadi, forget to brief the media on the master plan. As such, the clueless Fourth Estate let the events on the floor of the chamber unfold live on TV screens allowing the public to witness first-hand the shameful travesty of due process and justice.
What happened in the House, which the public witnessed courtesy of live broadcast, is, in summary, that MPs, from across the divide united and voted against the proposals almost to a man in an acclamation. The chair of the committee of the whole House, the Hon Roselinda Soipan Tuya who is also the Narok County Woman Rep, in the most callous of actions, declared the win for the losers. “The Ayes, have it,” declared the legislator, even after the voices of the Nays that constituted almost every Member on the floor drowned those of the Ayes, who could not even number 15.
To try and scuttle the process, those in support of the amendments, led by Duale, Mbadi and Kimani Ichungwa, the MP for Kikuyu, rushed out of the chambers to deny the process quorum in the event of a division. A standoff ensued as the Nay group stood its ground. The Speaker of the National Assembly, the Hon Justin Muturi who was watching from his office as things unfolded had to rush in to rescue the proceedings. He conceded to the fact that the whole process was a mess and ordered for a fresh voting even as those in opposition insisted on having won the vote. On Second thought, however, probably after seeing the resolution in camp of the dissenters and coming to the obvious conclusion that they would still carry the day in a repeat exercise, Muturi ordered a 15min break.
It was after the break that the Speaker unleashed the shocker. He called off the repeat vote, stuck with the Hansard recordings of the events that had captured the coup of the vote word by word and declared, in the end, losers as winners in the glaring presence of rolling TV cameras in what can only be said to be a reincarnation of the infamous 1988 mlolongo (queue) elections of the Nyayo era where contestants whose queues were openly shorter throughout the voting process were declared winners at the end of the exercise.
Prime news bulletins of leading TV and radio stations, however, reported the vote only as announced by the officials irrespective of what transpired in the process. “Uhuru taxes sail through,” sexy, female news anchors crooned on 7:00pm and 9:00pm TV news bulletins.
The following morning, the leading newspaper, Daily Nation, tweaked the story with a front-page headline, “Drama, chaos as MPs vote for tax” giving an impression that Members of Parliament had indeed voted for the taxes despite the manifest chaos. Indeed, the kicker of the story screamed, “Walkouts, jeers and protest chants mark House session as Uhuru’s tax proposals sail through…” A sidebar on the same page focused on the proposed austerity measures, conspicuously announcing how Sh8bn has been removed from the State’s travel and entertainment budget, Sh5.8bn from ministry of ICT, Sh8.7b from infrastructure and Sh1b from universities.
The Business Daily, which focuses entirely on business news, had the splash, “Uhuru taxes sail through in chaotic voting session,” rubberstamping the voting coup that had transpired on the floor of the Chamber the previous evening. Just listen to its intro to the story: “Parliament yesterday passed President Uhuru Kenyatta’s austerity and tax proposals in a chaotic sitting characterised by claims of irregular voting, jostling and name calling.”
The Standard also massaged the truth with an equally weird front-page headline: “Stand-off as MPs endorse new fuel tax.”
Key, operating words across the coverage and which were not by coincidence include: vote for, sail through, pass, endorse… none of which described truthfully what transpired on the floor of the House.
The headlines of the leading dailies, indeed of the mainstream media in all formats, including print, TV and radio should have remained faithful to the truth and reported the travesty of justice that Muturi, Duale, Mbadi and Ichungwa had engineered.
The real story deserving of the front page, which the papers conveniently ignored, was how government bulldozed, indeed, bypassed Parliament, to force through tax hikes. The media, with teams in Parliament, were privy to all the intrigues that ensued and caused this abortion of justice. Why did they choose to immediately look the other side?
The impact on the economy of the new taxes, including the 8 percent fuel levy, the anti-adulteration levy that has hiked kerosene prices to retail at near diesel and petrol prices; 20 percent excise duty on fees on money transfer services by banks, 15 percent excise duty on telephone and internet data services; 1.5 percent on monthly basic salary for the National Housing Development Fund among others, will be dire.
Cumulatively, the new measures are going to mess up livelihoods of the masses, majority of whom live below the poverty line. It is unbelievable how it has become normal, almost fashionable, for the public watchdog to become complacent in the usurpation of the right of the public to information and their own, to inform.
When the Jubilee Government first came to power in 2013, it made it its open agenda to woo mainstream media to its side in a four-pronged strategy. It began by opening up State House gates, hitherto a very guarded entity, to the media fraternity, which gleefully jumped on board. Secondly, and which has continued through the entire period of this government, the State wooed key media practitioners with state jobs. As such, controlling the media became easy through former colleagues who new operations of their former employers and who still had connections in newsrooms. This came in handy especially in running government propaganda. Whenever the above two failed, the state, through its operatives, never shied away from employing the oldest methods of threats and outright intimidation.
The biggest of Jubilee Government’s cards in crippling a vibrant media has however been through buying into media ownership by top state officers. It is no secret that top Jubilee leadership are major players in the Kenyan media industry.
Kenya’s mainstream media has not only consistently failed to live up to its calling but has more often than not joined the state in the travesty of justice against the people since 2002, after long-serving President Moi exited the scene. This should worry every Kenyan of good will. In 2007 and 2013 for instance, the media conspicuously transformed into peace crusaders conveniently abrogating their key role as the sword arm of democracy and as watchdog to protect public interest against malpractice and create public awareness.
It is a complete reverse of the media that kept Moi’s regime on toes, alongside and organised Opposition when it was near suicidal to do so, to achieve reintroduction of the multiparty democracy that gave birth to a new Constitution 2010 that brought Devolution which has revolutionised parts of Kenya in ways it could never have under the 1969 Constitution.
From the September 20 events, it seems this trend in mainstream media of complacency and playing cosy with the government of the day, allowing itself to be manipulated – is going to be around longer than initially thought. It should worry everyone.