Elections 2017

How Cambridge Analytica made Uhuru Mr President

President Uhuru Kenyatta after inspecting a guard of honour during recruit's pass out parade at Recruit Training School in Eldoret. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

On August 1, 2016 Alexander Nix, the CEO of the SCL group sent out a letter to his 70 members of staff. The year had so far brought some tremendous growth to its subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica.

The tone of the communication from the CEO’s office on the top floor of the building at New Oxford Street, an upmarket address in London, was triumphant. And it promised more victories in coming months, not just for those who worked under him, but for another team thousands of kilometres away in Nairobi.

Somewhere tucked away on the second page of the communication was the aspirations of the company that alluded to a long-term relationship with one of their biggest clients that year, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party.

In the course of six years, Cambridge Analytica had made a President for the princely sum of just under Sh1 billion through engagement with the country’s power brokers and political wheeler dealers.

“In 2016, we have supported campaigns in Argentina, Lithuania, Ghana, St Lucia and are currently active in Kenya... There is a strong likelihood that this campaign will continue to grow well into next year,” the letter read.

Budding romance

ALSO READ: Alice Wahome: Is it aggression or just raw political ambition

By this time, CA was in an uncomplicated, four year relationship with the powers-that-be in Kenya. And from the look of things, there was nothing that would put this romance on the rocks. After all, The National Alliance, the vessel that took the President to State House was a creation of the London based outfit, for it was CA that thought up the party, the slogan, the manifesto and everything in between.

Leaked documents from CA on its global operations show how the company single-handedly created the Uhuruto Alliance of 2013 that locked out Raila Odinga from the presidency on successive occasions, leaving the opposition leader as runners up twice.

Email chains and strategy papers describe in great detail how the campaigns around the Kenyatta presidency were planned and later on executed, with peripheral participation of local actors who were sometimes allowed to take credit for work actually done by the CA. An email excerpt (seen above) alludes to this.

The email was from Harris Macleod, the senior communications manager at CA’s election arm, to Brittany Kaiser, the company’s former business development manager.

In 2012, as the country was headed into an election and the Kenyan political space was heating up, CA operatives jetted into the country armed with what they thought was a water tight proposal that any ambitious politician would crave for.

With just under a year to the elections, the CA team cast its net wide but missed its initial client, Raila, whose handlers dismissed them, arguing that they had already won the elections. They promised to “possibly think about engaging them” in 2017 for their re-election bid.

Around mid-2012, the CA proposal to the Kenyatta camp was accepted. Their budget, running into hundreds of millions did not seem to be a problem for the moneyed TNA.

ALSO READ: Apologise to President, Raila allies tell Alice Wahome

With this, the first steps towards the creation of the Uhuru-Ruto presidential ticket for 2013 were made. The first task was to build the Uhuruto brand from the ground up, setting up the country on a collision course with one of the most glitzy, showy presidential campaigns witnessed in the country.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging,” Mark Turnbull, CA’s managing director of the company’s political arm - SCL Elections - said. “I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing - so just about every element of this candidate.”

In total, CA ran about 107 political campaigns in support of an Uhuru presidency.

This included a perception survey to enable CA provide TNA with an in-depth understanding of the Kenyan population’s attitudes on security, governance and other key topics. Also provided were a series of strategic communications recommendations, which helped TNA mitigate negative news coverage and promote positive sentiment among voters.

“Such insight cannot be gained from media reviews; a more balanced ‘temperature check’ is required to truly measure public sentiment and levels of support,” the leaked document states.

The team though, was accused of being behind a deeply divisive campaign that exploited ethnic tensions to manipulate voters.

CA then designed an in-depth national and regional communication strategy designed to position its client, the ultimately victorious TNA, as the national choice for Kenyans.

ALSO READ: Uhuru and Raila seek to rewrite the ‘wrongs’ on powerful premier post

“The strategy formed the central plank of a campaign that powered the TNA from being a party without a single MP to being the largest party in the Kenyan parliament and controlling the presidency,” CA says.

With this, it essentially created a President who in the course of the campaigns had at least on one occasion publicly contemplated abandoning the race in the face of the debates about the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Over the course of the project, SCL worked side-by-side with Kenya’s most influential and powerful people, many of whom went on to be given positions of high importance in Uhuru’s administration.

The same script was repeated in 2017 when the CA’s services were again required by the ruling party.

Again from early 2016, CA ran a perception survey to get the attitudes of Kenyans on security, governance and other key topics. This survey formed the bedrock upon which President Kenyatta’s re-election bid was founded upon.

Guarded operations

As this went on though, CA operatives were protective of their clients, doing all they could to keep their political operations in the country as confidential as possible. Staff at the company were instructed not to mention the successes it was enjoying in Kenya even to prospective clients in a bid to reel in new business.

“You must remember we cannot talk about our work in Kenya to other Kenyans (or people who could get this back to them). If it got back to the Kenyatta team that we were telling others about our work, it would potentially endanger one of our biggest contracts,” reads another email from Kaiser.

ALSO READ: Talk of Uhuru’s 2022 PM plan triggers fresh political frenzy

Unlike in 2013, the focus this time by the company was on rebranding the TNA/ URP coalition into a single party - Jubilee Party. As was in 2013, CA was responsible for the political rallies, speeches, media messaging and polling services during the 2017 polls.

In a nutshell, SCL was a leading behavioural research and strategic communications partner for governments, corporations and international organisations worldwide.