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Opinion: Kenya buys Sh600M social media monitoring tool as people starve

By Edward Wanyonyi | Published Wed, January 18th 2017 at 00:00, Updated January 18th 2017 at 07:23 GMT +3

News that the Kenya Government through the Communications Authority (CA) has invested $5.8 million (Sh600 million) in a social media monitoring system for the upcoming General Elections came as a shock to many citizens who have for the past month witnessed a paralysed health sector as well as acute food shortages in several Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) counties.

It is a shock not just the amount but the philosophy that is behind prioritisation of such purchases and the timing. But let us for once go along and interrogate the necessity of this ‘investment’ as termed by the Director General of the Communication Authority.

The background is the 2007/8 post-election violence that consumed large sections of Coast, Nairobi, Nyanza, Central, Western and Rift Valley counties.

Revisionists have taken a centre-stage to rewrite the post-election violence discourse as a creation of the media and digital technologies and not senior politicians who facilitated the purchase of machetes and fuelled vehicles transporting militia who carried out the attacks.

Post-Election Violence deniers have gone ahead with a religious narrative that aims to cover up the entire orgy of violence in words of forgiveness and reconciliation, reducing the flare-up to a Kikuyu- Kalenjin affair in order to justify the 2013 General Election victory.

Revisionists of history have developed a narrative that paints unemployed young people as the source of the violence in order to distance the mismanagement of the entire electoral process.

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However, what is being communicated in the 2017 General Election is not just the significance of 10 years after the 2007/8 post election violence, but three key messages. First, double-speak about the usefulness of technology in social, economic and political transactions.

That the Government has resources to invest in state-of-the-art censorship tools and systems but lacks the same resources to connect 17 per cent of the country, which is not connected to 3G network space to allow for a full electronic elections management backup system.

That the Government is more concerned about hate speech than investing more resources in civic education about responsible citizenship, which perhaps would be less costly.

The second message is the securitisation of Government responses to uncomfortable critique. It is no wonder that government has failed to fashion a suitable response to the constant failures of graft, insecurity and worsening business climate.

It is no longer news that most companies local and international are either executing or considering staff retrenchments and redundancies. It is a given that families and victims who have been in one way or another affected by terror incidents are yet to get compensation or post-medication support.

These and many more self-inflicted blunders have increased the level of critique that could potentially sway the vote in the run-up to the elections.

Instead of responding to these issues in a robust manner, there is now an attempt to use a blanket cover of hate speech to curb the inefficiencies and excesses of the Jubilee regime.

The third message that is being sent through this purchase is the fact that the Government is not keen on fostering alternative counter speech in a bid to set the facts right.

Rather, it intends to pump sufficient amount of fear through arrests and criminal prosecution in order to achieve a violence-free election.

The philosophy behind this is that a just and fair election is not necessary any more - only a peaceful election is necessary.

It is a fact that the current government lacks anticipatory and response capacity to secure the country especially in a situation where some of the key organisers and beneficiaries of violence tend to be politicians who have either served in government or are still serving in government.

What the CA perhaps should concentrate on is how to ensure the penalties for misuse of license provisions should also be extended to media owners who in most instances happen to be politicians.

We cannot afford to throw ‘national security’ around every time we stumble across failures in policy and sound planning.

Freedom comes with responsibility and the criminal procedure code is not lacking in the necessary provisions in the event that a person is found guilty of irresponsible use of their freedom of expression.

However, there is no justification that this purchase will prevent a groundswell of violence. In any case, the elections of 1992, 1997 and 2007 that were marred by post election violence never saw a neutral or passive State actor.

Instead, reports abound of how the State was at the centre of violence to the benefit of some elites. While the President has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he welcomes constructive criticism, this latest purchase clearly indicates a departure.