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When social media followers do not translate into votes

Musician Bahati who vied for Mathare parliamentary seat has 3.2 million Instagram and 223,000 Twitter followers. [iStockphoto]

As the country geared for the August 9 General Election, politicians spent millions of shillings on digital platforms in marketing campaigns in the hope of winning in the polls.

Among the new-age politicians who opened their wallets were several celebrities attempting to transfer their social media clout into political victories at the ballot.  

Showbiz celebrities Bahati, Eko Dydda, MC Jessy, Jalang’o’ and Wamunyota threw their hats in the ring. Others who joined the big turn chariot were award-winning gospel singer Stephen Kasolo, Davidson Ngibuini aka DNG, John Kiarie (KJ) as well as McDonald Mariga, among others.

Jubilee Party’s Bahati, who finished a distant third in the Mathare MP race that was won by incumbent Anthony Oluoch of ODM, had the highest social media following of the group, with 3.2 million Instagram and 223,000 Twitter followers. The singer, who claimed to have spent Sh33 million to fund his campaign, managed 8,166 votes after Oluoch clinched the top spot with 28,098 votes.

Comedian Jalang’o won the Lang’ata MP seat on an ODM ticket after trouncing the incumbent Nickson Korir of UDA with 38,948 votes. He boasts a following of 2.7 million on Instagram and 658,000 on Twitter. Korir, who amassed 36,836 votes, pales with 20,000 Instagram and 41,000 Twitter followers.

With 315,000 Instagram and 1,295 Twitter followers, rapper Eko Dydda hip and hopped to victory in the Mathare North Member of County Assembly ward race, while 46,000 Instagram and 1,335 Twitter followers could not save Stephen Kasolo from losing the election in Mulango ward, Kitui County.

Mugithi sensation Lawrence ‘Wamunyota’ Gathee was, however, successful after belting the right campaign tunes in Gaturi to win the MCA seat.

Celebrated comedian MC Jessy fell short in the Imenti South parliamentary race after Shadrack Mwiti clinched the seat on a Jubilee Party ticket. Jessy, with 1.8 million Instagram and 172,000 Twitter followers, vied as an independent candidate after declining a UDA plea to shelve his ambitions in favour of Mwiti Kathaara.

For former Harambee Stars captain Mariga, who enjoys 43,000 followers on Instagram and 23,000 on Twitter, the 2022 Kibra parliamentary contest was a repeat of the 2019 by-election where he lost to Imran Okoth.

On August 9, Mariga, who was contesting for the seat on Ruto’s UDA ticket defeated Okoth after garnering 20,049 votes but couldn’t marshal enough support to trounce the winner, ODM’s Peter Orero, who managed 33,008 votes.    

Hype-man DNG is Woodley Kenyatta Golf Course ward’s new member in the Nairobi County Assembly. He packs a comfortable 130,000 followers on Instagram and 53,000 on Twitter. Across the pond, comedian ‘KJ’ won a second consecutive term as Dagoretti South MP after garnering a total of 26,394 votes against his main challenger Dennis Waweru who amassed 22,773 votes.

It was a bitter-sweet moment for ‘KJ’, who has 27,000 followers on Instagram and 64,000 on Twitter, after his former ‘Redykyulass’ partner and Umoja Summit Party presidential candidate, Walter Mong’are, alias Nyambane, was blocked from contesting the presidency for lack of a university degree. Nyambane has 16,000 followers on Instagram and a relatively equal number on Twitter.

Explaining the phenomena, communication strategist Rita Oyier said whilst celebrities have name recognition and are drawn from industries that monetize popularity, social media following and engagement don’t necessarily translate to polls.

Oyier said their followers, who are, more or less, neither geo-locked to the celebrity’s polling area nor necessarily political, consider several factors including who the celebrities are and whether they are satisfied with their candidature.

“While social media may be more affordable, it has to serve its purpose. They cannot just be used, as a billboard would,” said Oyier.

Worse still, once these celebrities take the plunge from their keyboards to the unforgiving Kenyan political streets, they quickly have to contend with ‘patron-client’ politics. Their survival in politics is hinged on them hanging on their party leaders’ coats should they not form their own parties or as independents. 

Case in point in 2019 when popular dancehall and reggae Dj Chrispinus ‘Kriss Darlin’ Odhiambo had to kneel before former Prime Minister Raila Odinga to win favour from the ODM party honcho ahead of the then-by-election in Kibra constituency following the death of Ken Okoth.

Stunt or no stunt, the prostration by Darlin, who has 186,000 followers on Instagram and 36,000 on Twitter, during the unveiling of ODM aspirants for the seat, backfired.

The ‘People’s Watchman’, activist Boniface Mwangi, laid a different template than Darlin in 2017 when he attempted to short circuit the party lords during his quest for the Starehe parliamentary seat. Without the backing of a major political party, Mwangi ran on the then-newly formed Ukweli Party ticket, crowdfunded his campaigns, engaged directly with the electorate and canvassed for support on social media.

Seen and heard?

Voters, however, swayed against Mwangi, who has a reach of 209,000 followers on Instagram and 1.8 million on Twitter and voted in favour of pop singer Charles ‘Jaguar’ Kanyi, who has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 116,000 and Twitter. Jaguar was then backed by the ruling party, Jubilee. Flamboyant businessman Steve Mbogo of ODM, who has a 133,000 following on Instagram and 18,000 on Twitter, came second ahead of Mwangi.

“’Ground ni ground’. In this Information age, proximity is social currency and gives the person familiarity and likeability, benefits that translate to voter preferences. People like feeling heard and seen. Social media following may not make your voters feel seen and heard, like in town hall meetings, for example,” said Oyier.

According to political strategist Philip Chebunet, there are political market imperfections in the Kenyan election landscape that political entrants, such as celebrities, have a rude awakening to when it is acutely late.

Chabunet, who was party to president-elect William Ruto’s UDA communication team during the just concluded election, said the entrants are oblivious to the transactional nature of politics; the hidden costs of political sponsorships – including violence, nuances i.e. against tribes and genders, and the tinkering with the electoral processes – real or imagined.

“Kenya’s politics is in a transition phase. There are emerging trends in the use of technology, the methods of campaign messaging, the alignment of candidates and the deployment of political parties or alliances. In many voting blocs across the country that were considered party strongholds i.e. ODM or UDA, candidates in those parties were as good as elected after nomination,” said Chebunet.

Aside from just posting on social media their political processes and activities during campaigns, Chebunet added, the celebrities must step out to seek votes as ‘echoes’ on the platforms are increasingly contributing to citizens’ decreasing levels of interest in politics.

 “While having a social media following is a plus, most candidates fail to tie the messaging with policy or their manifestos. UDA had dedicated teams for content on social media, that is pushing candidate material on Twitter Spaces etc. The party (UDA), moreover had volunteers engaging voters, agents at all polling stations and representatives at the Bomas of Kenya plenary. Same as the competition,” said Chebunet.

For Oyier, the decline in the number of young people who registered and turned up to vote, a demographic that most celebrities bank on for votes, could affect Kenya’s democratic trajectory in the years ahead.