Shenzi type: Why Kenyans don’t fear Presidency

President Uhuru Kenyatta inspects a gun mounted on top of an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) [Photo: Courtesy]

On December 25 last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta, using his verified account tweeted a Christmas message:  “Once again, we celebrate the birth that changed the world. We Christians believe that on this day, God sent his son for our salvation.”

What followed was a study in how Kenyans speak to power today.

One angry Kenyan retorted to Uhuru’s Christmas message: “And God sent you to us as punishment!”

In another message in which President Uhuru congratulated Deputy President William Ruto after graduating with a PhD in plant ecology, a Kenyan tweeted back: “Hata wewe rudi shule ufanye credit control!” in reference to the country’s spiralling foreign debt.

Speaking back to power, especially the Presidency, was inconceivable during retired President Daniel arap Moi’s reign when his name was mentioned in whispers while looking around to see whether Special Branch guys were eavesdropping.

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When Moi exited in 2002, his successor, President Mwai Kibaki, now also retired, was so offhand, complete opposite of the omnipresent imperial presidency that he completely demystified power and how people interacted with it.

In fact, President Kibaki was inactive on Facebook and Twitter

President Moi ruled during the analogue era and thus did not have a face-off with armchair human rights keyboard warriors like his successors and especially President Uhuru.

Today, the anonymity and apparent ‘distance’ from law enforcement that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide, seem to have given most Kenyans avenues and channels to exercise freedom of expression by pushing boundaries.

President Uhuru [Photo: Courtesy]

Though President Uhuru has a presence on social media with over 3.6 million followers on Twitter alone, he does not use the platform to push his personal agenda. Posts on his verified account are excerpts of remarks made at official and public functions, which are polished. 

The same applies to other popular politicians including Deputy President William Ruto and former premier Raila Odinga though the DP has been reported to have blocked some followers when they castigate him. 

President Uhuru’s 2018 Christmas message was turned into a torrent of harsh criticism and lamentations over his government’s apparent poor performance record in providing critical services, with one Kenyan blaming the devil and asking Uhuru to “wake up and find his way back to sanity for the sake of the country.”

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Most recently, Kenyans also descended on President Uhuru following reports he had provided a chopper to controversial preacher, Prof David Owuor, to ferry him from Nakuru to Mombasa for a meeting. State House has since denied the report.

It was not the first time Kenyans were resorting to social media to vent their anger and besides Uhuru, other leaders like Deputy President William Ruto have not been spared.

One perennial victim is Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula who after consoling Arsenal fans after their team was thrashed 5-1 by Liverpool in the English Premier League, was told on Twitter that he was in good company since he’s often beaten by his spouse in reference to that time in February 2016 when he reported his wife to the police for allegedly assaulting him.  

Moses Wetang’ula [Photo: Nathan Ochunge]

Today, accessing a politician through Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter is easy unlike in retired President Moi’s regime when  social media tools were not even a rumour: Facebook was founded in February 2004, Twitter in March 2006 and WhatsApp in 2009.

While freedom of expression is provided for in the Constitution, it is not absolute and that some users have formed the habit of abusing the social media space to, for instance, disparage characters.

For instance, while no law forbids showing disrespect to the President, it can be a recipe for chaos.

Some Kenyans have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for using Twitter handles with uncharacteristic zeal that was “grossly offensive” to cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another person.”  

US-based Freedom House compiled some local cases of arrests following social media clampdown.

In August 2017, Robert Alai, a blogger and social media influencer, was arrested in connection with health info published about a Kenyatta family member on Facebook. The story was later pulled down without explanation.   

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Yet another blogger, Cyprian Nyakundi, was arrested in May 2018 for allegedly “alarming” posts on his blog and Twitter account about senior civil servants. Some of the posts included allegations from a whistle-blower about bribes some civil servants received for land deals for public schools in Nairobi, which could be prosecuted under the penal code for publishing false statements that “cause fear and alarm to the public.”

Cyprian Nyakundi [Photo: George Njunge]

Others arrested for spreading hate speech in 2017 include bloggers Paul Odhiambo, Japeth Mulewa, Longton Jamil and Oliver Nyabwazi Moraira.   

 Freedom House says the government’s unlawful and disproportionate surveillance capabilities have become more evident in the past couple of years, particularly as the country prepared for last year’s election.

Bloggers and internet users have also faced increasing intimidation and violence for their online activities in recent years.

Of the various social media platforms, Twitter has proved the most powerful with Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) proving to be unmatched in condemning injustices and holding the government to account.

One of the most active social media users is activist Boniface Mwangi, who has over one million followers on Twitter. He is involved in social-political activism through his initiative, Team Courage.

Mwangi is best remembered for shouting down Cotu boss Francis Atwoli as a “traitor” at Uhuru Park during the 2013 Labour Day celebrations for his apparent support of MPs to increase their parks. Twitter seems to be a much safer venue.