Critical newspaper readers around the country and beyond must have been “a surprised lot” on May 20, 2012. As Kenyan news reporters like to say, 'on seeing the front pages of their favourite papers' on that Sunday morning.
The papers looked pretty much like political campaign pullouts.
“Fresh start as Uhuru unveils his new party”, Sunday Nation celebrated, with a large close-up shot of Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. “Fresh start” for whom? For Kenya, for Uhuru, or both?
“Organisers say security will be tight at the ceremony which has been fashioned as a youth event”, the tagline read.
Then this promotional blurb: “Launch of The National Alliance is expected to be elaborate, with six satellite events in Kakamega, Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret and Garissa, from where there will be two-way communication via giant screens.” And then a quote from Uhuru, prominently placed next to his picture: “It is the beginning of a new dawn, a new way of doing things led by the majority – the youth.”
Uhuru Kenyatta is presumably one of those “majority youth” of Kenya. Sunday Nation, Kenya’s most read weekly, dedicated a whole three pages to TNA pre-launch coverage.
And having done that, the paper proceeded to the pulpit to preach self- righteously to its readers in an editorial titled, “Voters interested in issues.” “For months on end, the politicians have been obsessively focused on power plays designed to smooth their path to State House.
“The voters have different priorities. According to polls conducted over the past three months the wananchi state clearly that they are concerned about various bread and butter issues and not endless streams of political rhetoric.”
Well and good. But what was Nation’s promotional coverage of TNA’s launch focused on? The bread and butter issues mwananchi is interested in, or the power plays and political rhetoric designed to smooth the path to State House? The Standard on Sunday, on the other hand, had the headline, “Uhuru rocks Central boat” under the caption, “Heir apparent?”
Seemed like the people at Standard Group Centre had concluded that Uhuru is just a Gema chieftain flaunting the filthy lucre of primitive accumulation tied to his political pedigree.
Or does a plutocrat who is the quin- tessential reflection of what is wrong with Kenyan politics and who is merely attempting to ride the “youth” wave
to State House the new meaning of “change”?
But then there was this blurb beside a close-up picture of Uhuru that suggested The Standard was also parroting empty political rhetoric: “True believer: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta shakes off region’s parties and powerbrokers, ignores threat of trial at The Hague and splashes out on the launch of a new vehicle for his presidential bid.” The “True believer” tag in the Standard blurb came from the TNA slogan: “I believe”.
Believe in what or in whom? Just believe? In politicians? Don’t interrogate. We are a nation of believers, after all, are we not? Wouldn’t we get somewhere if the youth of Kenya were invited to join a revolutionary party with the slogan, “I dissent?”
Anyway, at the best of times, Kenyan journalism tends to be sceptical of the in- tentions and machinations of the holders of power (all good journalism should); or, to put it more precisely, our news managers attempt to create the impres- sion of scepticism and detachment.
But not in the case of TNA launch. It was a time to celebrate Uhuru’s com- ing of age, the media seemed to have decided.
Certainly, TNA strategists, supporters and hangers-on cannot complain about the media coverage of their party’s launch.
Ahem, strategists. K24’s live coverage of the event started in the morning, sev- eral hours before the actual ceremony. It included a live in-studio interview with what the station described as a “political strategist”, Mr. Tony Gachoka. Who was K24 trying to fool? The man, in his usual garrulous fashion (Francis Atwoli has a worthy competitor here) hardly gave his interviewer Remmy Majala a mo- ment to ask a question. He rambled inexorably about “when Kenya was taken to The Hague”, how TNA was a party for the “Uhuru generation” (what does one do with the other generations?), how he knows Uhuru and the Kenyatta family “personally”, how that family is united despite having all that fabulous wealth, and so on and so forth.
Nor did Remmy Majala herself give the slightest impression of a hard- nosed, dispassionate journalist just doing her job. She blabbered:
“Look, there are now huge crowds outside KICC gathered for the historic launch of TNA, what does that tell you about the popularity of TNA?” “That is the statue of the Founding Father of the Nation. He is looking at the TNA supporters as they rejoice at the TNA launch. Doesn’t that indicate that the Founding Father of the Na- tion is watching over the launch of TNA”...? From time to time Remmy Majala would manage to cut short Tony Gachoka to link up with her col- league on location at KICC, Richard Kagoe, to give viewers an update of the event.
At one point Kagoe interviewed a man he characterised as a “politi- cal analyst.” The man looked like a political analyst of sorts – one probably plying his craft in Ndunyu Njeru in Nyandarua County. He began by saying that the TNA launch was something “we have been waiting for, for a long time.”
It wasn’t immediately clear wheth- er “we” referred to all the political analysts of Ndunyu Njeru speaking with “one voice” or the people mill- ing around him and Richard Kagoe.
“Uhuru is anointed by God,” the political analyst announced live on K24. Kagoe did not ask for a clarifi- cation. There was no need. All the people of Kenya should join TNA for a brighter future, the analyst contin- ued. And then he invited Richard Ka- goe of K24 to join TNA. Kagoe did not need to be in the register, we think.
What a terrific interview! After witnessing the razzmatazz at KICC, which was aired live by all TV channels, still the newspapers could not sleep a wink – especially Nation and The People.
Come Monday, the headlines and the stories were euphoric:
“My promise to you”, The People cried in bold caps. A huge picture showed Uhuru addressing “a mam- moth crowd” at KICC. The paper spread out the story in five long pages. They should have devoted the entire issue to the launch, really.
Nation: “Pomp and colour at Uhuru party launch”. Tagline: “After of- ficial speech, DPM took off jacket and tie to dance with the youth at music concert”. Some headline news. Blurb: “Move confirms he will not let ICC trial derail quest for the presidency.” (So, the ICC is about “derailing” people’s political ambitions and not justice for the victims?) Big photo: “Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta addresses his supporters...” Uhuru quote: “The answer to true nationhood lies not in revenge or tribal animosity but in justice being our shield and defender”.
All that on Nation front page. The Standard tried to remain calm: “Rock and Roll”. Blurb: “Uhuru launches his bid Obama-style, Muda- vadi takes on PM in Mombasa, same city where Raila declares himself ‘liberator’”.
Standard had three pictures on its front page featuring Uhuru, Raila and Musalia and their party symbols. The paper also carried a quote from each of the presidential contenders alongside the pictures.
Who can argue with this good attempt at level-headed political journalism? (Although cynics are wont to point out that perhaps Mr. TNA Lucre for some reason skipped SG Centre in his media house rounds ahead of the event.)
Nation on its part declared the TNA launch “an event unparalleled in scope and organisation for a party launch or announcement of a presi- dential candidacy in Kenya.”
That indeed is reporting about “bread and butter issues”....
It was a launch that took Kenyan politics to the next level. Most definitely. With the media dancing and ululating along.