Radio Kikuyu

The voter registration period

I started Radio Kikuyu during the voter registration period and this loomed large over a lot of the programming till the exercise came to an end.  As you may recall, it was extended because of a court order so that meant the rhetoric around it went on a bit longer than I had anticipated.

For those of us who are not Kenyans: the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, is from the Kikuyu  community and is regarded as the Muthamaki (loosely translated as king – a position that did not traditionally exist among the Kikuyu) by fellow Kikuyus. The Kikuyu are the largest tribe, occupy Central Kenya, and have a significant diaspora outside the region (more about that in later entries).

2017 is an election year in Kenya and the last voter registration period before the general signalled the last lap. In a country that usually feels like it’s in perpetual campaign mode, the temperatures were high and this was made manifest on Kikuyu radio. Every segment I listened to (5 hours per day in the early days) had something to say about the ongoing voter registration process.

The morning shows were the site of a lot of these messaging round the process. A note on the format of morning shows: they usually feature one or two charismatic figures who hold forth on the topic of the day. They’ll have spirited conversations as the show progresses and sell a few things – various commercial products, land, education, and betting services – while they’re at it. During this period, they pushed voter registration in a host of ways. The major one? That Kikuyus need to marshall their large numbers to make sure their man stays in power.

There was a strong ‘Us vs Them’ theme underpinning the registration period and it came out in a host of ways. Having Raila Odinga – a member of a tribe that Kikuyus dislike for a host of reasons –as the most prominent member of the group opposing the President offered a great boogieman with whom to scare unregistered members of the public to register.

The registration drive was characterised by campaigns to encourage voter registration that mimicked the campaign trail. President Kenyatta spent a significant amount of time on the road. His fatigue, amid ardent pleas on the trail, was used to emphasise how important it was that listeners register. It saw Kikuyu members of cabinet go out to their counties of origin and ostensibly campaign for residents to register to vote. The oddness – and problematic nature of this – became apparent when the Health PS at the time, Nicholas Muraguri, passed up negotiations with doctors who were then on strike to drive up numbers in his native Nyeri County.

Kikuyu radio during this period featured a continuous stream of messages to potential voters to register. The message would be integrated in all manner of programming – couching it in religious language was a highlight for me as all manner of Scripture was utilised to emphasise just how vital it was that listeners register. Young people were also a huge target of mobilisation messaging with a lot of it aimed at older people; who were expected to encourage them to register to vote.

The basic premise was this: the president’s victory must be decisive this time round. The only way to ensure this is to ensure every potential Kikuyu voter is registered and votes for him. The refrain I heard a lot was that the election would be decided at the end of the registration period. This ties in with the notion of a tyranny of numbers determining how the election goes. This message was so ingrained that when the period was extended, it led to great displeasure. Ironic, until you consider it was delaying what some considered a done deal.

There would be messages about voter registration numbers every day and interviews with Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) officials at the county level to keep track of numbers. The stakes were high and by the time the period was wrapped up, the President had traversed the country. Each station styled itself as the most accurate purveyor of voter registration news and sometimes that meant the most accurate reporter of the President’s activities. This, coupled with the consistent messages to register to vote, meant that listeners were inundated with the message. I am curious to know if it resulted in more people registering to vote and if there was a similar effort among other vernacular stations and what form it took.

These are a few of my observations on the content on Kikuyu radio stations during this period. I’d love to hear from other listeners how they experienced it and what stood out for them. If you know of people who are doing something similar to Radio Kikuyu, please let me know – it would be great to know what the picture is like on other stations.