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Where Is the BBI Headed?

9 min read.

Following the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, a re-setting of a dangerous trend in Kenya is occurring, whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence. Kenyans have become accustomed to an increasingly irritable and angry president who demands, but is not able to command, unfettered loyalty. But the climate of intolerance that the president is creating is the public face of a deeper and much more insidious plan, an attempt at remarshalling the forces that have preserved the political status-quo in Kenya since independence, at the service of which is the Building Bridges Initiative.

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On January 3rd 2018, an article which I co-wrote with April Zhu was published on this platform. Its central premise: many years of political reform in Kenya have failed to muzzle dissent within the political establishment. Exactly three years later, Kandara Member of Parliament, Alice Wahome, seems to have sounded the alarm bells.

Rehearsing the message of her speech during the burial of Charles Rubia, a key figure in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, she castigated Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga (she described Raila as Uhuru’s new political mercenary for hire) as the “biggest existential threat to Kenya’s declining economy and democracy”. In short, Wahome was referring to the re-emergence in Kenya of a political culture of intolerance directed by the President himself. In fact, Wahome’s statement, coming as it does at the beginning of the year, may set the tone for opposition politics in the run-up to the 2022 general-elections.

But it has also rekindled memories of a sermon by a young Dr Timothy Njoya at St. Andrews Church in Nairobi thirty years ago, which garnered publicity and uproar in equal measure. During that New Year’s sermon, the young reverend remarked on the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and speculated about the return of multi-party politics in Kenya, a bold statement at the time. While his speculations would become a reality only two years later, he was immediately rebuked by politicians, all of whom were members of the ruling party, KANU—at the time the only political party in Kenya.

Njoya’s sermon is on my mind as I watch the condemnations that Wahome is receiving for criticising the political establishment. In a political climate akin to the one in which Njoya voiced his remarks, I see the re-setting of a dangerous trend in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence, but which was re-energised by the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru and Raila.

Indeed, since the March 2018 settlement, Kenyans have become accustomed to an increasingly irritable and angry president. He demands, but is not able to command, unfettered loyalty. More often than not, he unleashes in public bitter diatribes in his mother tongue targeted at people who disagree, or poke holes in his leadership. He continues to be on the defensive regarding his under-performing and expensive mega-infrastructure projects.

The climate of intolerance that the president is creating is the public face of a deeper and much more insidious plan. It is part of a wider attempt at remarshalling the forces that have preserved the political status-quo in Kenya since independence, and which the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) process seems to be in the service of. The shouting down of Kipchumba Murkomen, the Senate Majority leader, during the launch of the BBI report at the Bomas of Kenya last November, and the recent jibes that have been thrown at Alice Wahome for criticising Uhuru, are quite revealing and instructive.

I see a dangerous trend that seems to have been re-set in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence

In an insightful piece also published on this platform, Akoko Aketch contends that the BBI exercise is a crisis of how the long-standing beneficiaries of the political establishment—a distinctly Gikuyu elite—can reproduce their domination “after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record, and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to this elite’s interests.” He submits that the “BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.”

The recent extension of the term of the BBI task-force is, for instance, being perceived as a way of creating more time to introduce radical proposals, such as the creation of the position of an Executive Prime-Minister, a position that, as many have argued, Uhuru will be qualified to assume come the next general elections in 2022. This thinking is not entirely pedestrian. While Uhuru has himself stated that he is not interested in another term as president, the push to change the constitution, his public attitudes regarding opposition politics, and the ongoing re-centralisation of power by the central government (despite devolution), leave a lot of room for speculation.

One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public. In this script, underdevelopment and political violence is the work of Kenyans of poor judgement, political dissidents and their often-unemployed youthful followers, not the result of years of unaddressed injustices and skewed redistribution of power and resources. In fact, this line of thinking is one of the primary messages of the BBI report. Dr Wandia Njoya, in a recent article published on this platform, summarised the report as a “declaration of war by the political class against the people of Kenya”. In a painfully convoluted manner, the report, in its attempt to locate, or explain the lack of a national ethos, adopted a language that is not only recriminatory and accusatory, but is also regrettably informal.

Ten billion shillings later—as rumour has it—and more than twelve months after the BBI taskforce was appointed, the report that came out of the process was peppered with an embarrassing number of typos and presented in cheap layout and low-quality typesetting. Seductive images of the nation’s (supposedly egalitarian) past are constantly reproduced and projected, as a way of distracting from the realities of the impunity that has repeatedly been unleashed on the Kenyan public by the political class since the country gained independence in 1963. In a tragic misreading of how morality and communal responsibility actually works in Kenya, the BBI report went ahead to castigate Kenyans for “running away” from their culture, and for demanding rights, as opposed to responsibilities.

One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public

This mind-set was alive and well during and after the 2013 elections, the first after the post-election violence of 2007-08. During those elections, which were haunted by the fear of a repeat of political violence, calls for peace intensified, and they immediately became disciplinary and forbidding. People were urged not to protest or question the electoral process. Even the media joined the peace bandwagon and began self-censoring.

In the end, the state regained its dominant position in directing political debate, and the political establishment precluded a potential assault on its privileged position. In fact, the only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017.

But if recent revelations by Dr David Ndii regarding events in the run-up to the March 2018 handshake are anything to go by, the critical part of the drama in 2017 took place off-stage, and the elections became a mere subplot. Seen in this manner, the détente between Uhuru and Raila was, in actual sense, a way of subverting fundamental transformation in Kenya and restoring the status-quo. The BBI, as Wahome has now warned, might be the “special purpose vehicle” for this mission.

The triumph of the system

While many people, including the adversaries of the BBI exercise, had expected that the report would make drastic recommendations that would fundamentally alter Kenya’s political landscape, especially the pure presidential system, the ongoing proposals to create the position of a powerful (as opposed to a prefectural) Prime Minister do not offer much promise either. In fact, whether it is true or not that Uhuru plans to become Prime Minister in a post-2022 arrangement with Raila as President, any cursory analysis of how politics actually work in Kenya will reveal that power (even under a parliamentary system that is not undergirded by powerful decentralised units) will continue to be concentrated at the centre.

The only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017

All politics, power and influence will continue to revolve around the Executive branch, whose control will continue to be grounded in its ability to direct political and economic activity across the country. In fact, combined with the minimal proposals that the report has made to restructure elections, the political party from which the President and Prime Minister will come will continue to dominate all key positions in government, producing the same exclusionary effects of the winner-takes-all system that have ailed the country’s politics since the return to multi-partyism in the 1990s.

As the year progresses, the BBI will prove itself to be an exercise that is merely aimed at reproducing what David Throup and Charles Hornsby referred to as “the triumph of the system” in their seminal book, Multi-Party Politics in Kenya. The first triumph was witnessed in the 1960s. Kenya, like many ex-British colonies, was bequeathed a Westminster-style parliamentary system of government when it became independent in 1963. The independence constitution also made provisions that took away power and significant functions of government from the centralised government in Nairobi, that is, a system of eight regional governments of equal status that was known in Swahili as Majimbo.

However, the parliamentary system through which Kenya became independent was dead by 1964. Kenya became a Republic and Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father, became its (unelected) first President. The Majimbo regional system, the next target, was abolished together with a post-independence Senate, at the same time as the first opposition party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), was folding itself, citing frustration from the Executive. By abolishing the Senate, the regional governments and the parliamentary system, the first post-colonial elite-pact of domination, or the first triumph of the system, had completed its mission.

As a result, the “Imperial Presidency” was born. From 1964 to 1992, the year multi-party politics resumed, the constitution had been amended over twenty times. The amendments served to empower the Executive branch of the government at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. At the height of this madness (in 1990), the office of the president (OP) included a staff of 43, 230, representing a ratio of 1 in 6 civil servants. The OP became a parallel government, with considerably more executive power than actual ministries. The instability that such a structure of government can introduce in a political system—where inequality and regional imbalances are rife, and where ethnicity is inexorably intertwined with how political representation and redistribution actually works—became clearer with the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992. Trust among the political elite became fickle, leading to the instrumentalisation of violence and ethnic identity in the political marketplace.

After many years of struggle for reforms, the structure of the “bureaucratic-executive” government, at the head of which was the President, survived with minimal alterations. The only significant structural change, many have argued, was the introduction of forty-seven devolved units. However, the mandate of county governments was significantly reduced compared to that which was allocated regional governments in the 1960s. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency.

Raila Odinga, who had become the political champion of constitutional reform, especially the proposal to introduce a parliamentary system and strong devolution by 2007, gave up on these demands after the outcome of that year’s elections. At the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha, where the Parliamentary Select Committee made up of 14 Party of National Unity (PNU) members and 13 Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) members that had been selected to respond to the first harmonised draft that would become the 2010 constitution had met, people feared that the politicians would not find common ground, risking a return to conflict. Indeed, disagreement reigned but some deals were struck, of which the most important—which removed the blockage that threatened a deadlock in the discussions—was made by Raila and Uhuru (reportedly in a room at the lodge). The deal saw ODM let go of the parliamentary system altogether, in favour of the presidential system. In addition, Raila (who at the time was Prime Minister in a coalition arrangement with former President Mwai Kibaki) relaxed his demands for strong devolution, that is, a three-tier decentralised system of government in favour of the two-tier system that was favoured by PNU. As a result, the 2010 constitutional draft provided for a pure presidential system. Pure in the sense that, not only would cabinet ministers be appointed from outside of parliament, but losers of presidential elections, no matter how many votes they had garnered, would not be accorded any public office. The draft also scrapped the regional tier of government, and fixed the number of parliamentary constituencies at 290. Nothing much changed after that.

County governments were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation

During the parliamentary debate over the draft that took place in mid-2010, ODM MPs—notably James Orengo—continued to push for the regional governments. Raila had already hit the streets, campaigning for the draft. Orengo was left alone. The draft was eventually promulgated in August 2010, after winning the popular vote at a referendum. The powerful presidency—with slight alterations—triumphed.

Tunakula nyama: politics since 2013

County governments came into place after the 2013 general elections, but they were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation. Feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, continued to exist, despite constitutional change. The pure presidential system that the 2010 constitution provided had worked to the disadvantage of Raila Odinga—who lost both the 2013 and 2017 elections to Uhuru.

Between the two elections, Raila held no public office, yet he continued to exercise personal influence over vast swathes of the country, where ODM, his party, had won considerable numbers of constituency and county seats. To the chagrin of many who felt unrepresented at the centre, Uhuru stated, rather arrogantly, that they—the government in power—were eating the nyama choma [roast meat] and that those who were in the political cold should be content only with the smell. A number of times, Raila would instigate programmes—most notably, the Okoa Kenya initiative—which, incidentally, were part of his attempts to change the 2010 constitution, but which, one could also argue, were part of his struggle to remain politically relevant.

Raila’s strategy did not yield the expected results, but it had its uses. It proved that Raila was adept at combining his political fate with that of his supporters. In this way, the anger of Raila supporters that followed the announcement that he had lost the elections in 2013, and then again in 2017, could not be separated from the perception that they, also, had been excluded from the political process for many years. Following this logic, the feelings of exclusion felt by many of Raila’s supporters after the 2017 elections could only be addressed if Raila himself were to become part of the Executive—very similar to the situation in 2007-08.

While it had become apparent, after the 2017 elections were concluded, that Raila was the biggest victim of a constitution that he had done much to support, his move to “shake hands” with Uhuru was more the result of defeat at challenging the political establishment over the years than it was an effort to usher in fundamental political reforms. What is more important to consider is that Raila’s support of the current Presidential system in 2010 was also the result of an elite-pact with none other than Uhuru Kenyatta, his current partner in the BBI settlement nine years later.

These developments, where the political establishment that has been at the helm since the 1960s is seeking to maintain its hold on power and control, should concern Kenyans. Despite arguments to the contrary, much talk about the BBI will be about political positions, and as the current climate of political intolerance continues, fundamental questions regarding exclusion, injustice, and accountability will be glossed over, as has happened before.

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Dr Ngala Chome is a regular commentator on Kenyan politics and culture. His opinion pieces have been published d in Kenya’s The Standard and Daily Nation, influential online publications such as African Arguments, Foreign Affairs and the Elephant. His academic and policy research has been published in various policy reports and in peer-reviewed academic journals and edited volumes. He can be reached for comment at ngala.k.chome@gmail.com.

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Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security

Reliance on imports from as far away as Tanzania, Uganda and even China, leaves Kisumu County’s accessibility to food on a fragile footing.

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A ceasefire had to be called at the height of the 2007/8 post-election violence and a corridor created for the safe passage of foodstuffs from the Rift Valley to the lakeside city of Kisumu to avert a food crisis. The post-election violence had erupted barely 10 days earlier.

For a region that enjoys adequate rainfall and has good agricultural soils, the lack of access food supplies within days of a crisis breaking out is indicative of the problems generated by how food systems are structured in Kisumu County.

Kisumu County has a considerable shoreline along Lake Victoria that extends from Seme to the south to Nyakach Sub-County to the north. Apart from Kisumu city, the county also has a number of smaller towns such as Muhoroni, Ahero, Katito, Maseno and Kombewa.

Eighty per cent of the food consumed by the county’s 300,000 households—including maize, potatoes, onions, vegetables, milk, rice, eggs and bananas—is imported from as far as Uganda and Tanzania along with imports of fish from China.

Kisumu County continues to import food despite having regions that could potentially support expansive food production in areas such as Muhoroni, Nyamware and Nam Thowi, and the fertile crescents in Seme to the south. Over time, the rich alluvial soils that have been deposited in these areas by floods and rivers flowing downstream from Nandi Hills have created fertile grounds that support farming.

How did we get here?

The persistent issues that have impeded food production in Kisumu County are numerous. Traditionally, communities living in the county practiced fishing and livestock keeping, and subsistence agriculture as their economic mainstay. Commercial farming has only been embraced in recent years, due to interactions with neighbouring farming communities such as the Kisii, Luhya, Abasuba, and Kuria. The majority, however, continue to practice smallholder subsistence agriculture.

The uptake of commercial farming was also hindered by the economic policies of the 1990s that saw the collapse or the weakening of many of the structures that had been established to support food production in the country as a whole and provided extension services, grants, and subsidies to farmers. They include the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Agricultural Training Centres (ATCs), Agricultural Research Institutions (ARIs), and farmers’ co-operatives.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production. Most land in Kisumu County is not registered and titled and much of it is inherited property that has been passed down through the generations without legal title.

Recent surveys show that the cost of the farming inputs required to initiate meaningful agricultural production is out of reach for the majority of Kisumu County residents. This challenge is further compounded by the dearth of farming SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperatives); with the prohibitive interest rates charged by local banks, obtaining capital to start an agricultural enterprise has proved to be a challenge. These challenges are further exacerbated by the risks associated with farming such as crop losses and post-harvest losses.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production.

There is little agro-innovation among Kisumu farmers who still rely on traditional farming methods. There is little irrigation going on in the county. Lastly, there is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production such as agricultural engineers, extension officers, veterinary doctors, agronomists, sociologists, planners, economists, among others.

Food shortage affects the mwananchi

At Jubilee Market, a major cog in the food supply chain in Kisumu City, traders lament daily about inadequate local food supplies and about middlemen from outside the county who take advantage of food shortages to import supplies and make big profits. The high demand for food and the low supply have an impact on food prices, reducing profit margins for the traders, even as consumers are faced with high food prices.

There is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production.

The missing link in Kisumu’s economic growth is a buoyant agricultural sector. From observations made when the writer toured Victoria Eco-Farm, a leading food supplier situated at Dunga Beach in Kisumu City, the revival of agriculture in Kisumu is possible.  Victoria Eco-Farm deals in poultry, dairy, bee keeping, and the rearing of exotic dogs.  The farm has also diversified into agri-tourism, receiving visitors and training both students on attachment and local farmers on best farming practices. Nicholas Omondi, the Director, has become a role model for emerging food producers in the agriculture sector.

Modelling food sufficiency

Based on Walt Rostow’s model of economic growth, Kisumu County will not make a sudden and quick leap out of food insecurity. In Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow outlines the five stages that all countries must pass through to become developed: the traditional society; pre-conditions for take-off; take-off; drive to maturity; age of mass consumption. Regrettably, Kisumu County is still at the stage of a traditional society that is characterized by subsistence agriculture, limited funding and technological innovation, and low economic mobility.

The pre-conditions for take-off will only be fulfilled when the county government, acting in collaboration with the national government, provides adequate incentives for agricultural development. More food crops need to be introduced to farmers in Kisumu County. There is also an urgent need to revitalize existing sectors such as the sugar and fishing industries. The county’s potential to become a prime producer of rice also needs to be actualized.

Reform-oriented policies such as titling and surveying are needed in order to transform the existing models of landholding and land ownership. Farming communities in the county also require extensive sensitization and training on emerging technologies and innovations. Most importantly, existing lacklustre attitudes to farming as an economic activity among Kisumu County residents will need to be addressed.

However, the current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review. In effect, no serious gains can be made in the agriculture sector anywhere in the country as long as the national government continues to insist on enforcing policies that increase production costs and make it cheaper to import food from Tanzania and Uganda than to grow it at home.

The current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review.

Leaders must realize that whether they are in the opposition or in government, relations with state agencies, especially those in the agriculture sector, are key to developing farming in Kisumu County, that in the interest of economic development, they must always be in constant touch with the government for purposes of support, lobbying and relaying feedback in development processes. Existing attitudes and brands of politics that lead to self-marginalization must be removed at all costs.

It must be recognised, however, that the county government has taken initial steps to start addressing the challenge of food insecurity. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the county government has established a youth-focused Food Liaison Advisory Group (FLAG), leading to the promotion of urban agriculture, the strengthening of rural mechanisms for food production and initiating programmes for the training and deployment of agricultural extension officers.

It is to be hoped that such initiatives will contribute towards alleviating the food insecurity situation that the residents of Kisumu County continue to grapple with.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy

Twitter’s trending algorithm has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks, failing Kenyans as political actors use it to control political narratives by harassing dissenting voices.

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On the 24th of June 2021 at around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on Kenyan Twitter timelines. Its trend seemed to be driven by a number of faceless bots, and retweeted by a series of catfishes that sent it to the number one spot on the Kenyan Twitter trends. 

Our investigations have uncovered how such malicious, coordinated, inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, muddy their reputations and stifle the reach of their messaging, is a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, especially, has been central to these operations due to the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.

The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya carries the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of speech. Moreover, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and to call out their failures. But civil society members and journalists have increasingly come under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.

Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and gained crucial insights into how they are organized.

An examination of the campaigns has provided our team with a window into the shadowy world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.

Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Certain verified accounts on the platform are complicit in leading these attacks. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by muddying the truth.

Our investigations examined two months’ data between 1 May 2021 and 30 June 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill—famously known as the Building Bridges Initiative—that was being promoted in Kenya at the time.

With the aid of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we trailed the attacks by mapping and analysing specific hashtags that the influencers used on Twitter. This involved mapping certain accounts that posted malicious content targeting Kenya’s activists and judicial officers. The flagged hashtags often displayed synchronized publishing timestamps within the metadata, with a lack of content on most days, followed by one very sharp burst of activity and then fizzling out.

In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we flagged 23,606 tweets and retweets released by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to carry out further analysis of the content.

How disinformation is spread

The Twitter campaigns we looked at were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists that were vocally opposed to the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organisations and activists by portraying them as villains who were being funded by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto—he opposes the BBI process.

The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. The WhatsApp group admins give direction about what to post, the hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with, and whom to target. They also synchronize the posting to enable the tweets to trend on twitter.

There is money to be made in attacking civil society. Our sources confirmed that they get paid between US$10 and US$15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher up the ranks are on a monthly retainer that can go as high as US$500. Those who are on a retainer supervise the hashtags and ensure that they trend on the days they are posted.

Who the disinformation targets

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement who petitioned the courts against the BBI were the targets of some of the most vicious attacks.

The attacks peaked in early May with the specific goal of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign who was targeted, said in interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove that her activism efforts were genuine and that she was not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me focussed on painting me as someone with ulterior motives who isn’t interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Seii.

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists.

All this is leading to self-censorship by some of the activists on the platform as they feel that it is pointless to use a platform that cannot deliver any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said that she had significantly scaled down her Twitter activity because of all the trolling she had experienced.

The Kenyan High court struck down the BBI on 14 May on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20th. The ruling not only strained the already bad relationship between Kenya’s Judiciary and the Executive, it also led to wave after wave of disinformation attacks seeking to question the judges’ judicial independence and the accuracy of their decision.

A notable change in these attacks was how the visual aesthetics of the content within the campaigns evolved; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were employed, a likely indication of a change of leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make the content more palatable and shareable.

What is the impact of the slander?

The data that we gathered from Trendinalia (which collects data on Twitter trends in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved partly through the use of verified accounts. One anonymous influencer we spoke to said that owners of certain verified accounts involved in these campaigns would often rent them out to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot from the person that rented it from them once it’s over,” the influencer said.

The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is markedly strong. During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process. This translates to at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every two days.

Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually sway people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The goal of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore. The objective is to exhaust critical thinking and muddy the truth.

During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process.

Typically, a post by any of the prominent activists or judicial officers is bombarded with so much aggression, insults, and dismissive comments that the space for a good conversation is lost. The point is always to ensure that sober-minded people are disincentivized from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in the replies and the quote tweets.

The role of Twitter Inc.

To many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become a very critical avenue of expression, networking, running ads, and a means of obtaining information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of Africa’s loudest and most lively internet communities.

On the darker side however, some of the features on Twitter are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform is failing Kenyans—and Africans more broadly. Political actors are using it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.

Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users who are trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends is the primary key performance indicator by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to go trending on Twitter. I’m not sure what our jobs would look like without that target,” said one source.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks.

Twitter’s Moderation Team should pay close attention, keenly monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called for Twitter to “untrend” itself. This could be done by either removing the feature completely or by disabling it during critical times such as during election periods.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon.

Arguably, Twitter does not have an incentive to fix this. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” within the feeds of hashtags on its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter squarely in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.

Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter Ads in Kenya, currently offers promoted trends for US$3,500 per day within the country. The overall message this sends is that it is ok to sow hate on the platform so long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to the trending content and make a profit from it.

As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek out malicious coordinated trending models and create the risk of a repeat of the 2007 political violence.

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WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place.

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WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus
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Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization at the 75th World Health Assembly on 24 May 2022. Dr Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and he has been condemning the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as non-state actors in Ethiopia such as the Amhara militia, for the comprehensive humanitarian blockade, total siege, systematic rape, mass killings, total destruction of health facilities, and killings of humanitarian and health workers, and other atrocious acts committed in Tigray and against its people. There are, however, critics, especially from the Ethiopian government, that claim that he is abusing his mandate as the head of a UN organization. This raises the question to what extent high-ranking UN officials should stay neutral when it comes to conflict and crises in their home countries.

Mandate and watchdog 

As the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements on the catastrophic humanitarian and medical condition of the people of Tigray and his call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to lift the siege and humanitarian blockade are legitimate and within the purview of his mandate. It is important to understand the context of Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements. Dr Ghebreyesus has the responsibility of upholding WHO principles, which include the recognition that the “health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest cooperation of states and individuals” and that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The war on Tigray started at a time of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disrupted the efforts of the people of Tigray to prevent and contain the spread of the disease and mitigate its significant health and socio-economic-political impacts. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, on 31 March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) postponed the scheduled 29 August 2020 legislative elections indefinitely. However, other voices, including the Government of Tigray,  have condemned the decision as a corona-clouded power grab.

The war on Tigray, referred to by the Ethiopian government as simply “law and order enforcement” against a few leaders in Tigray, turned out to be a well-planned total war against the people of Tigray that involved significant forces from foreign countries, including Eritrea and Somalia. Several reports by humanitarian organisations and investigations by human rights organisations and international media have repeatedly concluded that the gruesome mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing that may amount to genocide. This is consistent with Ethiopian officials’ openly stated intent to erase Tigrayans. In February 2021, four months after the war started, they even shared their intentions with Pekko Havvisto, Finland’s Foreign Minister and EU Envoy to Ethiopia. “When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years, and so forth.

Despite the Ethiopian government declaring unilateral humanitarian ceasefires twice, first on 28 June 2021 and then on 24 March 2022, together with their Eritrean allies, Ethiopian forces have maintained the siege sealing off Tigray from the rest of the world and imposing “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” as stated by the UN in July 2021. The siege involves a complete shutdown of telecommunications, transportation, electricity, and the banking system with the result that workers’ salaries cannot be paid, people with savings cannot access their money, and the Tigray diaspora cannot send remittances to help their families and friends in Tigray. Even aid agencies working in Tigray were denied cash and fuel and many were forced to halt their humanitarian operations.

By March 2022, 16 months since the start of the war, it was reported that an estimated half a million Tigrayans have been killed. Of those, close to 200,000 lost their lives by starvation, which is being deliberately used as a weapon of war, while another 100,000 civilian Tigrayans died from lack of access to basic medical care. The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system. It is now close to 20 months since the war started and more Tigrayans have died from deliberate starvation, denial of medical care, torture, extrajudicial killings in the liberated part of Tigray, in western and other parts of Tigray still occupied by Ethiopian federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces and in internment camps in many parts of Ethiopia.

The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system.

The Ethiopian government and its allies are indeed working against the core UN charter and instruments including universal human rights such as the right to life, freedom of movement, right to food, right to health, and right to humanitarian aid. The people of Tigray are now denied the enjoyment of a standard of health services that they attained after decades of a hard, consistent and holistic effort to attain primary health care. The WHO sent critical medical supplies to all conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia but while the consignments to the Amhara and Afar regions arrived at destination without problems, those destined for Tigray have been deliberately blocked by Ethiopian authorities and their allies from reaching people who are being deliberately starved and denied access to basic medical supplies.

It is within this context that Dr Ghebreyesus is speaking out and calling for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop weaponizing access to food and medical supplies. Speaking at the inauguration of his second term, Dr Ghebreyesus said:

“I am humbled by the opportunity provided by the Member States to serve a second term as WHO Director-General”. He added, “This honour, though, comes with great responsibility and I am committed to working with all countries, my colleagues around the world, and our valued partners, to ensure WHO delivers on its mission to promote health, and keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

Dr Ghebreyesus is therefore acting in line with his mandate to be a voice for the voiceless victims. Dr Ghebreyesus is impartial in that, under his leadership, the WHO has also been dispatching critical medical supplies to the Afar and Amhara regions; the UN system has a watchdog that oversees the impartiality of UN officials. Moreover, the UN also has an Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates misconduct and violations by UN officials and submits reports and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

The Ethiopian government did lodge a complaint to the WHO Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics (CRE) and to the WHO’s Executive Board, alleging misconduct and calling for the removal of Dr Ghebreyesus from office claiming that he was using the office of the Director-General to further his personal political interests. This is part of the campaign that the Ethiopian government has been waging against all Tigrayans—attacks and witch-hunts against Tigrayans that lack any credibility. UN peacekeeping troops of Tigrayan origin deployed in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan faced similar attacks which led the UN to treat them as prima facie refugees in need of protection.

Neutrality 

In his 2021 book titled Perilous Medicine, Professor Leonard Rubenstein describes the debate within the humanitarian and donor community about the role of neutrality in aid work, which can be extrapolated to the UN’s high-ranking officials.

Neutrality, one of the four principles of UN humanitarian practice (humanity, impartiality, and independence), is about not taking a position on one side or another in a conflict. When undertaking humanitarian and other UN operations in zones of armed conflict, UN officials are expected to remain neutral, avoiding taking sides or showing favouritism. In contrast, impartiality is maintaining non-discriminatory positions towards individuals and  groups of  people in a conflict  needing humanitarian assistance. However, neutrality should not mean that UN officials have to remain tight-lipped and passive when any of the warring parties are massacring and deliberately starving a civilian population and denying them access to life-saving assistance because of their ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. As long as aid workers (or in this case UN officials) maintain impartiality, Professor Rubenstein questions if maintaining neutrality vis-à-vis a waring party or parties is even morally ethical, especially when they attack or deny civilians humanitarian assistance  because of their identity, as is the case with ethnic Tigrayans.

The WHO, led by Dr Ghebreyesus, has been impartial in its medical aid delivery to all ethnic groups affected by the civil war in northern Ethiopia.  While neutrality has been interpreted as not taking sides, it does not require Dr Ghebreyesus to be indifferent to the suffering of millions civilian Tigrayans when the Ethiopian government and its allies blatantly discriminate against them and deny them access to vital international medical assistance because of their ethnicity.

In her article Neutrality vs impartiality: What is the difference?, Carol Devine of Doctors Without Borders says, “Neutrality is not the same as staying silent. It’s nuanced and even controversial. MSF reserves the possibility to speak in public about massive human rights violations and crimes of humanity, including genocide.” A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies. When civilians are facing crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as is still happening in Tigray, taking no action using neutrality as excuse is against the fundamental values and mandates of the UN human rights and international humanitarian law.

A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies.

It is important to be aware of the unfortunate conflation of neutrality with the duty of impartiality. Indeed, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Louis Frechette is cited saying, “The UN cannot be impartial between those who respect international, humanitarian, and human rights laws and those who grossly violate them.” In 1999, former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality – there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.”

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place. The heads of UN organizations including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to join Dr Ghebreyesus in speaking up and acting against the continuing ethnic cleansing, siege and humanitarian blockade of millions of civilian Tigrayans.

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