Even before the Cambridge Analytica revelations of its role in Kenya’s elections broke this week, the legitimacy of Uhuru Kenyatta as president of Kenya was precarious at best.
His first election win last year was annulled by the Supreme Court, which deemed the poll “neither transparent nor verifiable”. His second election win, with 98% of the vote, came courtesy of a mass opposition boycott and low turnout, and amid widespread violence that left at least 100 people dead.
The split between the ruling party and the opposition coalition, led by Raila Odinga, worsened to such an extent that Odinga staged his own inauguration and proclaimed himself “people’s president”, precipitating a crackdown on media and other opposition politicians by Kenyatta’s government. It was another low for Kenyan democracy.
There have been signs of a detente in recent weeks, with Kenyatta and Odinga agreeing to put the country first, but the new revelations about scandal-hit Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Kenyan election have fired up the opposition again and has left Kenyatta’s legitimacy hanging by a thread.
In an undercover sting operation, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 news recorded senior Cambridge Analytica executives boasting about their influence on elections around the world. They claimed to use extraordinarily detailed data — largely gathered from Facebook, as Carole Cadwalladr’s Observer and Guardian investigation revealed — to tailor political messaging to specific audiences. They also spoke about planting disinformation, and subcontracting to private intelligence firms that could gather dirt on political opponents, or fabricate dirt if there was none to be found.
Regarding Kenya, managing director Mark Turnbull said Cambridge Analytica had worked for Kenyatta in both the 2013 and 2017 polls.
“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing — so just about every element of this candidate.”
David Marathe, the vice-chairperson of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, confirmed the firm’s involvement but downplayed its influence. “They were basically branding and all that but not directly.”
That’s not how the opposition National Super Alliance sees it.
“This was a criminal enterprise, which clearly wanted to subvert the will of the people — through manipulation, through propaganda,” spokesperson Norman Magaya told the BBC. “There must be criminal culpability.”
Larry Madowo, a Kenyan journalist who was harassed and intimidated by the Kenyatta government in the wake of Odinga’s “inauguration”, said Cambridge Analytica had “hijacked” Kenyan democracy.
“In Kenya, Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, breathlessly carped about Western imperialism and neocolonialism, while reportedly paying a Western firm millions of dollars to get them elected,” Madowo wrote in The Washington Post.
“The rich irony of this shameless doublespeak aside, there are still many unanswered questions about how far Cambridge Analytica’s work went and what ethical boundaries were breached.
“What we know is that Cambridge Analytica helped hijack Kenya’s democracy. It manipulated voters with apocalyptic attack ads and smeared Kenyatta’s opponent Raila Odinga as violent, corrupt and dangerous. The two rivals might have since reconciled with a famous handshake but that cannot erase the fact that innocent lives were lost because of a divisive campaign, or that tribal rifts were opened with long-lasting effects.
“It is infuriating to hear the company’s embattled and now suspended CEO [chief executive officer], Alexander Nix, flippantly admit that things ‘don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they are believed’. This is data neocolonialism, the same foreign interference Kenyatta pretended to be against.”
The neocolonial overtones of the Cambridge Analytica business model were underscored in a Frontline Club interview with Christopher Wylie, who worked for the firm before blowing the whistle on its method of harvesting data from millions of Facebook profiles.
He said Nix used his posh background to sell the firm’s services.
“When you’re dealing with a lot of clients from the post-colonial era in the Commonwealth, you can kind of sell this posh English, old Etonian colonial … there’s this weird power dynamic that you get. He would often play that up with African clients or Caribbean clients,” Wylie said.
Cambridge Analytica’s African adventures were not confined to Kenya. In the undercover sting, the firm’s executives boasted of having worked in more than 200 elections worldwide, and specifically mentioned Nigeria.