By Fred Mbogo
Published May 3, 2013
The great debate on how Kenyan television can achieve a respectable 60% quota of “local” content has been settled: Politics and public service is the new content. Based on real issues, it is alluring. It is live. It is creating new stars; stars who readily connect with the audience. Stars who don’t have to be paid by the TV networks.
Thanks to politics that sets the new political dispensation in Kenya, complete with a new constitution that sets the agenda in the country, names of lawyers like Kethi Kilonzo, Willy Mutunga, Nancy Baraza and Ahmednasir Abdullahi come to mind quickly. They are increasingly jostling for space with popular actors of Kenyan television drama programmes such as Vitimbi, Vioja Mahakami, Papa Shirandula, Inspekta Mwala. The speech, thought lines and even dressing styles of these new stars are analysed by regular TV journalists or presenters but equally ‘star’ analyst academics such as Charles Kanjama, Professor Macharia Munene, and Dr Adams Oloo. And the greater allure in this is that TV networks don’t have to maintain expensive in-house production departments or source expensive content from independent producers: The content is already live, popular, available and costs almost nothing.
Mwalimu Mohammed Abduba Dida, the Johnny-come-lately Presidential candidate–not Olexander Ole, the long serving entertainer of Vioja Mahakamani, the longest running sitcom on Kenyan television—was perhaps the most popular TV star in the first quarter of 2013 in the country. Not even the popular Papa Shirandula or Inspekta Mwala came anywhere near Dida!
The most watched TV programme in Kenya was—yes, you guessed right—the Presidential Debate of 2013.
Running for close to four hours, on a reported budged of Sh100 Million, a crew of 170, and beamed all over the world, the Presidential Debate marks a historic moment in the narrative of Kenyan TV to date.
Images of a red carpet, state of the art stage, smartly dressed contestants, serious looking moderators, and an auditorium packed with renowned figures in Kenya’s politics, business and culture were brought to life. The promise from this colour gave way to a somewhat tentatively nervous beginning that turned dramatic when the contestants appeared to tear into each other.
The first episode of the Debate dealt with questions around tribalism, the International Criminal Court and insecurity, among other issues. Uhuru Kenyatta’s maneuvers around the ICC question made it interesting to watch.
He felt Linus Kaikai, the moderator, was rather ‘unfair’ and later threatened to make a no show for the second debate. The entry of Mohammed Dida appeared to add flavour to the Debate which seemed at times to lose its energy. With his comments such as “Eat only when you are hungry”, “Lawyers are very funny characters in this country” or his concession that “You should not vote for me; vote for the best,” Dida of the ARK party seemed to enjoy himself as a showman should as he provided the much needed comic relief where the debate tended to swing between the serious and the boring.
Of course political debates like these must be adversarial. The contestants must ‘dirty’ their opponents. Even the most eloquent among the candidates, as Martha Karua of NARC-Kenya seemed to be, must present their profiles in opposition to other contestants. There must be drama with protagonists and antagonists. The actors must come into the debate with fans.
Raila Odinga of Orange Democratic Movement raised interesting problems for Uhuru Kenyatta of The National Alliance when he questioned the latter’s commitment to land reforms. It seemed he was going to punch squarely in a space that should floor Kenyatta. But he botched the opportunity when he said that Kenyatta had “many cases in court” over land only to change and state that it was Kenyatta’s Running Mate William Ruto he referred to when pressed to point out a single case.
Dida came into the debate room with a star-like profile; he being husband to four women and down-to-earth and introducing himself as “Mwalimu” (Teacher) having been a teacher for over a decade and seemingly having no care as to whether he’d win, his story smelt of a man seeking to disturb the assumption that only career “politicos” should be the ones running for office. He captured the feeling that the presidential contestants have been in politics for far too long and should give way to those who are fresh from elsewhere.
The problem with this Debate, though, is the supposition that the candidate’s eloquence should persuade viewers of one’s suitability to lead. The question of whether television has been used to hoodwink viewers into electing a charmer rather than a well balanced, well meaning and visionary leader must be posed.
But TV has not only made stars out of politicians; it is also latching onto Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Speak, i.e. speech patterns where phrases like “democratization processes”, “openness and transparency”, “equitable distribution” have become part of the official lingo.
Moreover, Kenyans can now watch men and women who have applied for senior positions in the Public Service being interviewed live on TV. Some of the biggest stars from these kinds of interviews are Dr Willy Mutunga who has since become the Chief Justice in Kenya and Nancy Baraza who became Deputy Chief Justice.
Kenyan television viewers were in May 2011 “entertained” by the question of Dr Mutunga’s ear ring. What was it made of? Why should a 60-year-old man spot “bling-bling”? And when he answered that it was part of his faith and all, there was shock! How?
Dr Mutunga’s eloquence, mastery of the law and unwavering confidence before a panel that was tearing his private life to shreds was dramatic. He embodied the aspirations of those who needed to question the rules of dressing, even if theirs was simply a question of fashion rather than deep quest for religious expression. Instantly Mutunga became a star.
The panelists pushed Nancy Baraza to the edge. They needed her to talk about her sexuality. They wanted her to elaborate about her Ph.D thesis on homosexuality and the law. Then they asked her about her lifestyle and whether her studies are in any way a suggestion of her lifestyle. They needed to know about her marital status. Her religion came into question. It became rather intrusive especially when the panelists opened the floodgates for her “accusers” to question her. While Baraza may have been facing a rather offensive group of questioners, the audience was glued with intensity to the drama of the occasion. She, as a character in a drama about the “life of justice” came out as an admirable lady. The panelists were impressed. Her confidence, poise, energy, unwavering focus and sense of humour in the wake of sometimes tormenting comments made her a character as rich as any of the intense Shakespearean or Francis Imbuga’s drama.
The performances at the Supreme Court during the Presidential petition hearings in March 2013 must have been good music to television broadcasting houses as all major stations televised every inch of the footage of the courtroom proceedings.
Lawyers came out in their flashy selves. They spoke like seasoned actors. Judges in green gowns took their privileged positions at the centre of the “stage.” The arrangement of the court in such a manner that the lawyers seat in a somewhat auditorium-looking space facing the high and mighty judges positioned above them is a play on power that was well presented on television screens.
The first day’s drama in court pitted Nazlin Umar, herself a former Presidential candidate, against the court’s judges. She said she had come in to represent Wanjiku or the hoi polloi. She appeared forceful, loud and annoying. There was a great aesthetic moment when the bespectacled, unimpressed, serious if not mean-looking Justice Jackton Ojwang spat words in anger at Umar: “…you have no rights to speak…”
Umar played her game well, pretending to take her seat when court security officers came to eject her. As all seemed to be quiet and orderly, Umar stood once more and uttered her seemingly irritating words to the judges. Her demands? That the Chief Justice disqualifies himself from the case because, in her view, he was likely to favour the petitioner!
With the exit of the bui-bui clad Nazlin Umar other stars, playing within the rules of the court shone through. Prominent among them was Kethi Kilonzo, who has since captured the imagination of Kenyans. At the back of the viewer’s mind was the replay of the introducing voice-over of court reporters calling her “The daughter of the former Justice Minister.” She was presented as being as tough as Mutula Kilonzo, her senior counsel father. Some TV broadcasters even read out a list of famous cases she had participated in and won.
When she stood to speak, she stole the show with her speech pattern replete with pauses that suggested that she was taking her time to build a formidable case. She was clear, concise, to the point, and seemed intent on “hammering” her points home. On that first day she came in that black and white lawyer’s gown which didn’t impress the Chief Justice.
In a comment that would have sounded rather patronising in another forum, Dr Mutunga encouraged her to “…not have to wear it…” on account of the weather and so on.
Television cameras captured numerous moments when her father, the former Minister for Justice and the then Minister for Education, would nod in agreement to his daughter’s presentation. The story behind her performance was lauded outside the court so that when she appeared for further sessions her star appeared to rise even higher.
But should creatives–writers, actors, directors, producers–worry about this development? Yes, they should if they don’t want to be rendered redundant. Their hallowed space has been invaded and they should seek to redeem it.
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.