Elections are two years away, yet it feels like the polls are just around the corner. Politicians are already crisscrossing the country promising the electorate miracles in a time of despair.
And to drive their point home, many of them are coming up with or reviving party slogans.
From past experience, such political statements, though fashionable, have either over-promised or under-delivered.
Our founding fathers perfected the art of sloganeering. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, after his name was floated as the country’s possible first ruler coined ‘Uhuru na Kazi’.
At the time, the country was suffering from high illiteracy levels occasioned by the slewed provision of education by the colonial government who, in their own warped ways, believed that Africans could not retain basic arithmetic, and relegated the education of their subjects to a need-to-know basis.
When Jomo was about to take up the job of premier, one of his key promises to the people who had suffered through colonialism was ‘Uhuru na Kazi.’ No one, in their right mind, would not have associated with this and soon, the country was in an almost euphoric state, believing that self-rule would bring about the much-needed jobs.
Jobs were not the only problem. Kenyans across the country had been disinherited by the queen’s empire. Hundreds of thousands were displaced from their ancestral lands and shipped to detention camps to pave way for the white highlands. From Nyeri to Kericho, entire communities were moved to unproductive lands.
So Kenyatta came up with another slogan – Uhuru na Mashamba – that he deployed during the initial years of his premiership and later his presidency. The people believed it and saw in Kenyatta a saviour who would take them back home. At the time of his death on August 22, 1978, communities that had been displaced 50 years earlier still remained landless.
Many freedom fighters who put their lives on the line for the independence of the country died without seeing the Promised Land that was to come with uhuru. Instead of the people who believed in the slogan that had been fed to them getting back their land, the former white highlands were divided among those close to power. The promise of freedom and land made to the people has to date never been honoured. Land remains emotive and historical injustices of dispossession remain to date.
While succeeding Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi had his fair share of slogans as well. His first, to appease the ruling class at the time was ‘fuata nyayo,’ a slogan that implied he would follow in Mzee Kenyatta’s footsteps and basically, not rock the boat too much.
There was context to this. Moi ascended to the presidency on the back of resistance and opposition from Kenyatta’s kitchen cabinet. To appease this cabal of ruling elite, he pledged to continue with what Mzee had started.
In a few years though, and after this ruse had worked, he started off on his own path, purging Kenyatta loyalists from the folds of power and installing his own men and women. In the years that followed, it became clear that he was running his own race and his were the only nyayo one could follow.
It is, however, during Moi’s time that political campaign slogans came alive. This was almost entirely because of the fact that the Kenyan political space opened up under his watch.
The dawn of multiparty politics encouraged guarded expression. And as the first multiparty polls came knocking in 1992, the electorate was spoilt for choice with what was on offer.
President Moi’s party Kanu promised to continue building the nation as it had always done with Kanu Ya Jenga Nchi.
But the opposition was more liberal with the usage of political slogans.
Kenneth Matiba, at the time a leading opposition voice, had split from the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford). Matiba and his splinter Ford-Asili didn’t promise much going to the polls.
While the politics had reached unexperienced heights, Matiba’s slogan remained simply ‘Let the People Decide.’ There were no illusions of grandeur. No lofty promises. Simple enough to make the electorate think that the outcome of the election was somehow in their hands. Matiba came second after Moi in that election. The people didn’t decide well enough.
Mwai Kibaki, who would later become the country’s third president, had a punchier slogan with his party, the Democratic Party.
For him, there were no grey areas. A vote for DP meant unity. A vote for DP meant justice. A vote for DP meant enlightenment. His slogan in that, and subsequent elections under that party, was Umoja na Haki, Toka Gizani. The slogans, though string and brave, did not divert his critics from constantly associating him as a President Moi project and that his candidature was fully backed by the State in what turned out to be a major blow for the opposition.
It was 10 years since the opposition won the presidential polls. The 1997 election was nearly a repeat of the one five years earlier. A splintered opposition handed victory to the ruling Kanu. But there were new entrants.
Raila Odinga picked up from where his father had left off and made a stab at the presidency with the National Development Party. Other new entrants to the scene were Charity Ngilu, whose slogan ‘masaa’ born out of her party symbol of a clock only signified that it was ‘time,’ but for what exactly, no one knew.
Wamalwa Kijana took a stab at the presidency with Ford Kenya, whose two-finger symbol signified peace but was mostly known for the lion head on the party symbol. Chants of Simba (lion) would precede party events and amid the euphoria, it was difficult to see exactly how the lion would come into play in winning the presidency.
The years that followed the 1997 elections are arguably Kenya’s golden age in political slogans.
The 2002 wave saw the Rainbow Coalition wave sweep through the country. Coalition politics came into play as a previously fragmented opposition came together to end Kanus 24-year stay in power.
The slogan of choice, Yote Yawezekana, was the hugely emotive, hopeful and brought feelings of near invincibility among Kenyans. The slogan showed it was possible to have it all. It was possible to dream. It was possible to have all those things that seemed so far away – a thriving economy, a good education sector, a proper healthcare system, a just society.
On December 30 as Kibaki was sworn in, Yote yawezekana bila Moi was the soundtrack of the event. This is the one song that boomed from Uhuru Park as Kibaki assumed office with Kenyans being ranked the most optimistic people in the world.
Soon though, this optimism evaporated. The possibilities promised during the campaigns were not just of the good kind. The country was reintroduced to mega corruption schemes. Tribalism and nepotism reemerged. And by the time the Rainbow Coalition was nearing the end of its first term in power, it had fragmented, proving once again how difficult it was for politicians to practice the unity and self-sacrifice they had preached during their campaigns in 2002.
The election that followed in 2007 saw Raila up against Kibaki in what has been the country’s most divisive election to date. Both men headed coalitions of their own. Raila was under the Orange Democratic Movement whose slogan was Chungwa Moja, Maisha Bora. A vote for ODM would translate into a better life for you.
Kibaki on the other hand just wanted one more term. The slogan for his coalition under the Party of National Unity (PNU) was simple enough – Kazi Iendelee (let the work continue). Under Kibaki, the country had seen the completion of crucial, long overdue infrastructural projects. The economy had grown in double digits for the first time in decades during some of his years as president. His pledge was simple, the good work needed to continue.
The polls were not decisive. A bungled election left the country in flames and over several months, hardliners on both the Kibaki and Raila camps dug into devastating effect. The work that PNU had promised did not go on. The better life that the Raila led ODM promised never materialised and once again, Kenyans were left hanging on to the memories of great campaign slogans with nothing to show.
Five years later, with Kibaki now exiting the scene, the duel was between Raila and the hastily convened The Party of National Alliance (TNA), led by current President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila’s Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD).
The Uhuru campaign team settled on another emotive slogan – I believe – again dwelling on the shortcomings of the previous regime and keep Kenyans on the dream that started in 2002 of a better Kenya.
But the years that followed the TNA victory killed whatever belief that had been promised. Rampant institutionalised corruption took root, the economy slowed down drastically and many of the gains that were made in the Kibaki era were quickly erased.
The economy slumped. National debt reached crippling levels and the belief Kenyans had of a better country barely a decade earlier evaporated and a sense of loss replaced this instead.
Raila’s CORD, on the other hand, settled on ‘Unleashing Kenya’s Potential,’ which never really caught on among the population. Five years later though, Raila and his coalition partners had learnt their nation. Slogan’s didn’t really have to mean anything and as the 2017 election drew nearer, Raila, now in the National Super Alliance coalition settled for song and dance.
Tibim! Tialala! became part of the party’s driving force. The exact meaning of these catchy phrases that evoked anger, admiration as well as feelings of indestructibility among followers of the coalition soon became part of their campaigns.
President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto had also evolved from when they were last on the ballot by choosing Jubilee Party. The slogan was simple, ‘Tuko Pamoja.’ The years that followed their election victory have shown that the promise of togetherness presented in the slogan has deserted even the two people who were elected on it.
Since 2017, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase dramatically. Urban poverty has become a norm rather than an exception. The slogans that brought them to power seem distant and disconnected.
With two years to the election and a possibility of a referendum, we will soon be treated to yet another round of political slogans that are crafted by politicians to serve one purpose only – prey on the people’s psychology and catapult them to power.
After that, the catchy phrases are soon forgotten and Kenyans are left to their own devices for the next five years. Left alone like outdated rubber stamps. Hoping to be used again whenever the need arises.