Attack ads turn up heat on Kenya's poll climate

18 July 2017 - 08:40 By AFP
Uhuru Kenyatta. File photo.
Uhuru Kenyatta. File photo.

A toxic campaign ad was unleashed online in Kenya just weeks before national elections - a potentially explosive move in a country where politics and ethnicity are closely aligned.

The 90-second video, shot in moody monochrome, presented a dystopia in which Raila Odinga, the leading opposition candidate, wins next month's vote and plunges the nation into a violent and inept dictatorship.

Under this scenario tribes would be set against one another while terrorists run riot.

"Stop Raila, Save Kenya. The future of Kenya is in your hands," the video said.

East Africa's largest economy holds its general election on August 8, a decade after disputed poll results fuelled violence that left more than 1100 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

It is unclear who is behind last week's slick video.

But some on Kenya's vibrant social media networks were quick to blame Cambridge Analytica, a company credited with using its data mining and psychological profiling techniques to help swing recent votes in the US and UK.

In May local press reported President Uhuru Kenyatta's Jubilee campaign had hired Cambridge Analytica, but spokesman Nick Fievet declined to comment on the company's possible work in Kenya, saying it had "no connection" with the video.

With 7.1 million Facebook users and an estimated two-thirds of Kenya's 45 million people on the internet, there is a critical mass of people leaving an increasingly detailed trail of information about their fears and preferences - a rich resource for those seeking to influence voting choices.

"Here it can lead to war," said John Githongo, a veteran anti-corruption campaigner. The wrong video, the wrong information, it can go out of control."

Cambridge Analytica worked on Kenyatta's last campaign in 2013 to paint Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto as victims of a Western imperialist plot to try them at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for politically motivated violence.

Frederike Kaltheuner, a policy officer at data advocacy group Privacy International, is worried by the "lack of any kind of data protection framework" in Kenya.

"There are concerns about the integrity of data in Kenya. Who would have access to it? Who is storing it? Do people even know what is being collected about them? None of these questions are being answered," she said.