The Emotive Role of Rumour and Gossip, and JUBILEE’s Paranoia with CORD

by kenyantaboo

“In March of 1991, false rumours circulated that Tropical Fantasy Soda Pop was manufactured by the Ku-Klux-Klan and caused black men to become sterile; sales plummeted 70%, delivery trucks were attacked, and vendors dropped the product…”

(Freedman, 1991)

Over the past week, Kenyans have been treated to a near comical show by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) summoning Eliud Owalo – former Chief Campaigner of defeated Raila Odinga – to explain allegations of his plot to destabilize Uhuru Kenyatta’s toddling government. It comes at a significant time when the new administration is finding it difficult explaining to Kenyans what became of their 100 days promises. Much ground has been covered, in a desperate attempt to angelize the Jubilee government including, but not limited to; serenading the media to a State House breakfast, and sending the Deputy President on a face-saving mission to every evening bulletin across stations. I am of the opinion that 100 days promises should never be made by any serious would-be government for the simple reason that three months is such a short time to lay the backbone upon which a five-year administration would attend to the needs of its people.

It is understandable, then, that any dissenting voice attempting to blow an air of pessimism on an administration struggling with appeasing the people would be clamped down with much stealth. However, silencing the voice of critics need not take the careless path of accusing dissenters with treason, especially when the source of information is believed to have originated from loose-cannoned bloggers whose consistent intention has been to fatally injure the person of Raila Odinga, and by extension his recovering support base smarting from an acrimonious election loss. If this were a government run by the rule of law, as I imagine it should be, then the first individual to have been summoned to the CID headquarters would have been the source of the information.

Legitimately elected governments – and Kenya falls in this category – gather intelligence reports first before embarking on a rendition programme on suspected dissidents. To summon Eliud Owalo and not the blogger who broke the news openly suggests a political settling of scores rather a mission to protect Kenya from its real enemies. But this is not the first time rumours has been used as a tool to remind opponents of who’s in charge an act often associated with autocratic rulers.

“Many autocrats have some interest in developing their country but they subordinate it to other interests that not only compromise their socioeconomic policies but undermine any serious pursuit of the rule of law. Thus, despite some commitment to socioeconomic progress, such leaders may also be fixated on enriching themselves, protecting certain privileged groups or sectors in the society, and undercutting potential political rivals. These other interests usually require deforming the rule of law in significant, even systematic ways. The terrible socioeconomic conditions and weak rule of law apparent in so many developing countries are, in many cases, a legacy of decades of misrule by autocratic regimes that claimed a deep commitment to developmental goals but in fact gave greater priority to narrower, self-interested, and countervailing concerns.” – pg 15

Carothers, T (2006): The ‘Sequencing’ Fallacy. Read more: http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/gratis/Carothers-18-1.pdf

In the last two to three decades much scholarship has been devoted to explaining the power of rumour in triggering riots and rebellions; discussing its capacity to mobilize crowds; to incite violence, and even to topple governments. The demise of former Philippines’ President Joseph Estrada, for example, has been partially attributed to a result of the mass spread of rumour via mobile phones, which contributed to the erosion of his legitimacy and later the civilian backed coup in 2001. In Kenya, according to scholars, the deadly 2007-08 post election violence, can be traced to an innocent act of concern twisted to suit an agenda spiraling out of control.

Very quickly after the announcement by the ECK of Kibaki’s re-election for a second term, rumours began to circulate that leading members of the ODM, including William Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi, and Raila Odinga, had been arrested. Subsequent press reports implied that these rumours of Odinga and Ruto’s arrest were likely to have ‘fuelled the violence in Rift Valley’ in early January. In Kibera, rumours of ODM arrests rallied local supporters, who took to the streets to demonstrate their frustrations on 3 January. The rumours were untrue and without foundation…”

Osborn, M (2008): Fuelling the Flames: Rumour and Politics in Kibera

Read more: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17531050802094836

It is easy and convenient to pick a gossip off the streets and convert it to a consistent propaganda campaign to discredit your opponents. Political parties have used the same tactics often with desired results. However, any government worth its salt, drawing legitimacy and goodwill from the people, must now remind itself that the campaign period is over and its now time to focus on nation-building. It’s a choice to make, and because choices have consequences, if the Uhuru Kenyatta administration chooses to extend the political campaign period by digging into opponents using unsubstantiated claims, then their opponents should not be blamed for giving back as much as they are receiving. We must remind ourselves that the role of the opposition is very clear, and it is not to smile at, and clap with, the government of the day. However, keeping the government in check need not to take a revolutionary path, and Raila Odinga has a proven track record of pointing the ills of government without resorting to driving to State House and picking off the Head of State.

There is need to remind ourselves of the dangers that spreading unsubstantiated information comes with. To start with, let us remember that half of Kenya is still smarting from a bitterly contested political process that opened long festering wounds of ethnic chauvinism. Regardless of political leaning or ethnic background, ALL Kenyans share one dream: That of leaving every morning for work and coming back in the evening with food for the family, at the very least.

Let us, as much as possible, refrain from deliberate attempts to open healing political wounds.

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