State (mis)communication has fuelled El Nino floods misery

Flooded River Muuoni in Mbitini, Makueni County. [John Muia, Standard]

According to government statistics, nearly 70 people have lost their lives as a result of the El Niño rains pounding many parts of Kenya. Hundreds of others, especially in northern Kenya and in the coastal region, have been left homeless with no food and clean water. 

As the misery brought about by the heavy rains continues, one pertinent question that many keen observers are asking is; where did the rains start beating us? This question arises due to the dramatic communication that the country witnessed before the start of the heavy rains. First, the Kenya Meteorological Department predicted in August 2022 that the country would experience El Niño rains.

This communication alarmed the country and some regional authorities formed multi-disciplinary committees to prepare and lay mitigation measures. As county governments and other stakeholders waited with anxiety for the national government to release El Niño funds, a miscommunication came out of the blue, as the English would say; President William Ruto announced that there would be no El Niño rains!

Instead, our ever-candid and confident President declared that there would be “significant rains” that would even enable Kenyans to go to their farms and produce more food. He went ahead to say that the “significant rains” the country would receive were a result of prayers held at Nyayo National Stadium in February and that God had indeed answered their prayers!

The moderate rains experienced in October, especially in western Kenya, appeared to fit in well with President Ruto’s declaration. Things, however, took a U-turn in November when heavy rains started pounding the northern Kenya region of Turkana, Isiolo, Garissa, Samburu, Moyale, Tana River and the coastal region. Floods swept some motorists to death and the media showed helicopters airlifting desperate people, including a pregnant woman who could not reach the hospital due to flooding.

In Mombasa, several people lost their lives and homesteads got marooned by floodwater. But before even authorities in the coastal city and county governments affected by El Niño could divulge their mitigation plans, another unsolicited communication came calling; Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua claimed the national government had released Sh10 billion to the 47 counties for flood mitigation. The boisterous second-in-command singled out Mombasa Governor Abdulswamad Nassir for doing little to help flood-hit families in his county.

Mr Gachagua’s communication rubbed the Council of Governors the wrong way; they convened a press conference and categorically refuted the DP’s claim that counties had received El Niño preparedness and mitigation funds from the national government. But even before Gachagua-vs-Governors’ communication fiasco came to the fore, the director of the Meteorological Department David Gikungu apologised over the government’s miscommunication on the El Niño rains. Days later, he was quoted in the media as saying he did not know who gave Dr Ruto false information that the department had scaled down its El Niño phenomenon alert.

As a young communications scholar and a budding journalist, I subscribe to research findings that communication is the hallmark of leadership and good communication etiquette is key not only in the running of the affairs of a nation but even families. In most cases, conflicts escalate when there is no communication or poor communication is in place. Relationships whether among people or states collapse when communication etiquette is thrown out of the window. So, the Kenya Kwanza government’s inability to communicate correctly and effectively on such a crucial matter like the El Niño disaster calls for urgent self-evaluation on its public communication policy.

The glaring misinformation and disjointed communication on matters of national importance are a direct indictment on the Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura. In an ideal situation, it is the prerogative and responsibility of the spokesperson to initiate, plan, mobilise, organise and coordinate government communication on issues of grave concern such as El Niño. But the question is, is Mr Mwaura fit for the position? Is he a communications specialist or was his appointment politically instigated? 

It is disheartening that Kenyans are losing their lives partly due to poor and disjointed public communication.

Ms Mohamed is a communications and journalism student.