Itumbi's piling woes prove that impunity eats its own children

Dennis Itumbi at Milimani Law Court in Nairobi on Thursday.

In late 2013, a local newspaper ran an article that made a withering attack on Kenya’s civil society where the author, writing under a pseudonym, claimed that Kenyan civil society was engaging in “lawfare,” which he defined as the use of law to achieve regime change.

Investigations showed that the author of the article was a Permanent Secretary, and that he had conspired with an insider within the newspaper establishment, to dodge internal controls that would have moderated his opinion, or required him to disclose his name, given the strong views contained in the article.

This was the beginning of a trend of false reporting and opinion attacks in which the government would increasingly be involved. Previously, a Member of Parliament had tabled a fake letter in the National Assembly, claiming that it had been written by the British High Commissioner in Nairobi.

The letter was supposed to be proof that Raila Odinga, then the Prime Minister, was collaborating with foreign powers to deliver President Mwai Kibaki to the International Criminal Court at the end of his term in office. Odinga’s reaction, that the letter had been authored by “people who ought to be in jail”, was understood as a reference to Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, then facing charges before the ICC.

When he took power in 2013, Kenyatta established the grandiosely-named Presidential Strategic Communication Unit to replace the Presidential Press Service that had served his two predecessors. Key positions in the new outfit were occupied by Jubilee campaign veterans, including the now-troubled Denis Itumbi. These veterans were emerging from a difficult campaign period which had ended in an improbable victory for their candidate, whose candidacy was complicated not only by the uncertainty resulting from his criminal charges before the ICC.

These veterans had already seen off many detractors against the possibility of a Kenyatta presidency, based on concerns about his ICC charges, and had already coined the term “evil society” to describe what they regarded as a coalition of national and international actors that was out to stop their candidate from taking power.

Throughout his first term in office, Kenyatta’s media team struggled to shed off their campaign-period combat mode and to project him in terms that reflected his transition from a controversial presidential candidate, into the President of Kenya. As a result, the presidential media team retained an approach to reporting and opinion shaping that was characterised by bare-knuckled attacks on critics and perceived opponents, and habitually generated content that was often sensational or exaggerated, and sometimes demonstrably false.

As an example, after Kenyatta’s difficult trip to Nyanza in 2014, during which he was heckled by an angry crowd in Migori that threw objects at him, pictures of uniformed policemen wearing neck braces appeared online.

The pictures were supposed to be evidence of injuries allegedly sustained by the police following violence by the local community. Those who created this content did not consider the incredulity of all the police officers sustaining identical injuries in an incident of generalised disorder. 

A controversial choice that was made at the time was to project Kenyatta as Mr Cool, in the image of Barack Obama. It now seems that this was a reaction to a legitimacy deficit that hobbled Kenyatta during his first term in office.

While it seems that the President’s media team wanted to show that Kenyatta was enjoying himself and, unbothered by the grumbles about him, Kenyatta came across as flighty, enjoying while the country was suffering.

The practice of fake news, initially associated with the core of the presidency, would soon spread to other sites within the government, with the Non-Governmental Coordination Board, soon becoming a regular practitioner. Under the leadership of Fazul Mohammed, the NGO board soon adopted a practice of framing NGOs with false, often sensationalised, accusations.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission bore the brunt of these reports whose false accusations included allegations of tax evasion. The NGO board would eventually engineer a tax audit on the commission that authoritatively found those allegations to be false.

The reason for discussing all this is that Itumbi, a star performer only recently, now finds himself in trouble allegedly for forgery. Besides the forgery, the issue of his role in an alleged hacking of a website of the ICC, which was raised previously, has been revived.

Itumbi must be bewildered because he is in trouble for allegedly doing the very things that were the expected practice of the presidential media team when he worked there. 

The Itumbi incident is not a triumph of good over bad or an attempt to finally bring accountability against a definitional practice of the ruling party. Rather, it is an announcement that the kind of impunity, of which he is accused, requires pre-authorisation which, it seems, he is no longer eligible for.  

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]