Capital FM (Nairobi)

Kenya: When Will the Internet Transform Kenya's Politics?

opinion

This last week the drama has been all about the party nominations. What tickled me was how one party was bragging about being well organised they would be as they were 'digital', only for their nominations to fail to take-off for an entire 24 hours.

The reality that is now hitting everyone is that nominating your party's candidate for the general election is not a walk in the park.

A second lesson from these nominations is the ineffectiveness of the Kenyan middle class politically. Despite the powerful presence Kenya's middle-class has on social media (Kenya is one of the leading African countries in Internet usage), and in spite of the amazing political discourse that goes on over social media, Kenyans have not been able to affect what happens politically through this media.

In a book by Joseph Vogel on the Obama movement in 2007 a story is shared of how a young university student started a pro-Obama Internet group that got over 300,000 supporters in a few weeks.

Vogel goes on to explain how these Internet groups were able to mobilise over three thousand actual 'boots-on-the-ground' as volunteers to local Obama campaign events across America whenever required. Many a Kenyan politician weeps with envy whenever they think of how much money Obama was able to raise via Internet donations.

Unfortunately this will not happen in Kenya, at least just yet.

When Ferdinand Waititu defeated Jimnah Mbaru for the TNA nomination Kenya's blogsphere went crazy, as bloggers denounced the idea that a man known for throwing stones could be nominated by one of Kenya's leading political alliances, as a possible governor of Kenya's capital. This rapidly became the hottest topic that was 'trending' on Kenyan social media, of course spiced with the drama that was the ODM nominations in Kisumu and Siaya. However despite all these noise nothing came of it.

On the Big Breakfast Show on Kiss FM, Caroline Mutoko, Jalango and I revisited this issue in detail. We worked through a list of people who have substantial popularity on the Internet, and then tried to understand why they seem to have absolutely no traction on the ground, at all. We agreed that it has everything to do with the supporters, not the candidates themselves. What the candidates have failed to do is accept this.

Kenya's middle class 'hangs out' on either Facebook or Twitter these days. If you listen to the 'tweeps' on 'twittersville' one would actually think they run governments in their spare time. This is in between volatile discussions on the length of a certain presenter's skirt, the size of her hips, etc. However what turns the heat on completely are discussions on politicians, who have been baptized 'Mpigs' by the folks on the Internet.

When the politicians proposed to raise their salaries, #KOT (HashTag Kenyans on Twitter) were up in arms with all manner of threats of what would happen should they dare carry forth their suggestion. When the politicians worked late at night to massacre the constitution, the first place you got the news was on the Internet. However, as I said above, nothing happens after that.

As a person who has a relatively active Internet presence myself I have learnt that no revolution will happen on the Internet; its only good as a platform to test out new ideas, or for those so inclined, to circulate propaganda. It is also a lovely place to irritate people. However it will not change anything on the ground, at least not in time for the next general elections.

Caroline Mutoko recently got into trouble with a few young people when she called some of the Internet-based groups 'idlers'. They went to war on her to the extent of circulating a post saying that she had died. This even made it to news on one of the TV stations, before it fizzled out.

Today Caroline is still one of Kenya's leading radio presenters; the negative propaganda on the Internet did not affect her ratings at all. What happened to her is what happens to Internet-based activities all the time, whenever they have no related physical presence on the round.

The next general elections are in less than 45 days. The recent nominations have proven that an Internet-based brand has no effect on politics. No one will elect anyone on the Internet.

Therein lies my third lesson which I am not sure has not been learnt by Kenya's middle class. All those good candidates who did not make it through the nominations, were failed by us, their 'friends' on Facebook and followers on Twitter, who did not think the nominations were important enough for us to show up for. If we keep this up all the way to April 2013, what will happen is that despite our hundreds of thousands of impressions on the Internet, good candidates will again not make it into office. Again, we might be too busy on the Internet.

(Wambugu is the Director of Political Affairs in the Raila Odinga Campaign Secretariat)

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