A government’s main preoccupation is projecting a good image of itself. It works like this; the propaganda machine helps explain away an administration’s failings even as it amplifies its successes; modest or big, real or imagined.
Rule number one on the political propaganda manual is to talk about achievements again and again; lies travel faster than truth. Keep in mind that you will never say it enough times.
Now, Jubilee’s propaganda wing – that once sleek machine that made UhuRuto electable against many odds - is seemingly making heavy weather of things. Nearly eight years later, with Jubilee’s swansong dying off, the report card – at least from public sentiment – is heartbreaking. The thing about political messaging is that you let someone else say the bad (or nothing) about you.
And sloganeering is part of the messaging. What defines President Uhuru Kenyatta? Kusema na Kutenda? The Big Four agenda? Or BBI/handshake? Founding President Jomo Kenyatta was defined by Uhuru na Kazi, which, coming soon after independence from the brutal and discriminating British rule, was powerful. Moi had the Nyayo Philosophy of peace, love and unity. He was following in the footsteps of the first Kenyatta.
Even US President Donald Trump has Make America Great Again. President Barack Obama’s Yes, We Can reverberated across the world. Many got buoyed by the hope it inspired.
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Fairly speaking, Jubilee has not performed so badly; what many find hard to forgive is that it ought to have done better. You could blame that on the culture of cynicism. But it is the lack of clear thinking on the messaging that is hurting Jubilee.
You can sense the belaboured attempts to recalibrate the message to position Uhuru’s legacy. If it weren’t so, the Hustler Nation narrative wouldn’t be so much of a bother to his close handlers who are seemingly scared of being run over by Uhuru’s recalcitrant deputy.
Those who interact with Uhuru are effusive of his intentions; that he means well for the country and that he despairs at bungling subordinates.
In spite of his great achievements, President Mwai Kibaki rarely gets a mention, unless of course by those who have wearied off Jubilee and perfunctorily mention the resuscitation of the economy and the sterling work on roads.
Kibaki had been swarmed by claims of nepotism, corruption and the 2007/08 post-election violence. Re-engineering the economy and delivering a new Constitution in 2010 – two major feats – are rarely attributed to him.
It would seem that Kibaki’s handlers realised, perhaps too late, that their man risked being forgotten, hence the launch of Vision 2030 in November 2008.
The tiff between Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto; a most discombobulating, gut-wrenching episode of the Jubilee love affair, is not making things easy either. Image consultants admit that it is never easy to swim against the tide of negative public sentiment. Was it by design that the crisis in the party ranks gets so mismanaged? As a consequence of that, it is Dr Ruto getting all the attention; for good and bad reasons. Uhuru’s candid admission in Manyani on Friday that politics had taken centre-stage is food for thought for the President's messaging crew.
Indeed, the sentiment in the court of public opinion is not about the hundreds of kilometres of tarmacked roads; or connection to the National Grid, or the more than impressive ease-of-doing-business. No.
It is about how Uhuru is giving his deputy the shaft; it is about ballooning debt; it is about 'tenderpreneurs', inflated tenders and new corruption like the Kemsa heist. Indeed, it is hard to convince the public that the Sh300 billion SGR is not "a railway to nowhere" or speak nicely about how once dark villages have been switched on; or how earth-movers are blasting through hills and valleys to make new roads; or the Competency-Based Curriculum; or that our exams have been rid of cartels; .
Debt is a real thorn in the flesh. But then debt is not necessarily a bad thing. To borrow more and to persuade your creditors to spread out the repayment plan to your comfort is a smart move in business. Yet what we hear most of the time is Jubilee's appetite for borrowed money.
Health personnel and teachers are paid better while more public hospitals have been built and are frequently better equipped, but the message out there is about the bungled, overpriced Sh60 billion Managed Equipment Services.
Is it that the president's handlers haven't found something that chimes with the public mood amidst those wildly exaggerated expectations and the debilitating succession duels?
Mr Kipkemboi is an Associate Editor at The Standard. [email protected]