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Why have Kenya's political campaigns defied innovations?

Crowd during a stop-over political rally in Bungoma Town, November 2021. [Courtesy]

Political campaigning in Kenya has left my head spinning. Why? despite all the advances in technology - from the Internet to phones has it been stuck in the past, gathering crowds day in day out?

Why has our campaigning been stuck in the old ways defying innovation? Even more perplexing, is why our politics has defied Covid-19 and its variants.

We started working from home when this pandemic hit home. Why can’t politicians work from home?

Think of any other sector in the economy, innovations have made our life easier and hopefully, more enjoyable. We teach from home, shop from home, pay for our utility bills from home.

Even technologically resistant sectors like food have not been left behind with food delivery to wherever you are. We have telemedicine and our Huduma Centres have brought government services closer to us.

Political campaigning is still old, why, with big loudspeakers, convoy of vehicles and crowds milling around. After careful analysis, I have concluded it’s not so paradoxical. Why?

One, our politicians know that speaking directly to another person is magical and more effective than calling, sharing videos or press adverts.

If you ever dated, you can easily understand what I mean. Those SMS, letters, emojis, late-night calls are overshadowed by a face to face meeting. You probably won her or you were won over during such a face to face date.

Politicians are aware we are after all human! Charles Kibiru, Kirinyaga senator says that although he prefers small meetings, rallies are emotional laden. And emotions win elections more easily than logic. 

You are more influential during such meetings. The body language works too. What have you worn, how do you talk, how do you walk.

Remember Joe Biden running? It goes beyond that. Have you noted our politicians change their attire depending on the region they are visiting?  After the rally, voters have something to talk about.

Our politicians know that speaking directly to another person is magical and more effective than calling, sharing videos or press adverts. [Courtesy]

They all become reporters amplifying the political message and its effectiveness through video clips, SMS, WhatsApp groups and word of mouth.

Two, rallies help segment the political market. You have a message tailored to each region. That would be hard over the media.

This is perhaps the main reason why political rallies are loved. Listen to politicians as they visit various regions. Good research on regional issues can make a difference.

Three, and sadly there is always an audience. We may not want to say loudly that unemployment and underemployment leaves a “floating crowd” seeking some entertainment and fun. Data supports that.

In countries with high employment rates, rallies are hard to organise. Add our relatively young population and the market for rallies is big.

Without showing off, I witnessed the campaigns for George Bush and there were no political rallies. Townhall meetings, posters and media did the work.

Four, political rallies are “beauty contests.” You have to create an impression. How many cars are in your convoy? What make? What size?

Our convoy and crowds are a show of power, perceived popularity and electability. We are innately materialists, judging books by the cover.

Voters remember the “show” more than the message. Why else are musicians and comedians hired?

Five, this may surprise you. Despite innovations in communication, we still prefer face-to-face talking. It seems it's a cultural issue. Kenyans prefer making phone calls, not SMS.

I “quarrel “with my fellow countryman for calling me five times yet they can send a message on the issue.

Those in the diaspora, noted the preference of messaging? But WhatsApp groups are changing that, slowly. The change is not driven by our growing love for messaging but cheapness.

Six, the rally can be amplified through the media making it more effective. The message and drama in the rallies is repeated over TV, radio, video clips and word of mouth. Still perplexed, why rallies have refused to die?

A section of media covering a press conference at the Council of Governors (COG) in Nairobi, January 5, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Seven, voting is still physical but wish it was electronic. It is about real people going to cast their ballots. It makes sense to talk to them and see them as they see you. “He was here” makes a big difference.

Eight, rallies are one of the many fronts in the race to political power. A politician has more choices and can test which front works better.

Remember Cambridge Analytica? Voters are diverse and you need a diversity of communication styles.

Nine, what of cost? Rallies raise the cost of politics. Could that be advantageous serving as a barrier to entry for many would-be politicians?

Does that explain partly why the poor find it hard to join politics unless through a sponsor? Does that explain why you need money to join politics? This is not peculiar to Kenya.

Ten, political rallies could be a hangover from our traditional way of life, meeting together under a tree, taking beer, cultural festivals, among others.

Political rallies demonstrate the resilience our traditions. Some could add we were hunter-gatherers and we are doing the same in political rallies, gathering votes from wherever they are. 

Where do we go from here?

Until our economy grows and reduces unemployment rates, political rallies will remain a feature of political system. Interestingly, one popular message in political rallies is on job creation. Are you a politician?

How much do you spend in a political rally? When do you think political rallies will become irrelevant? 2030? or 2050? Talk to us.