Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Demystifying Steadman's April Fool Prank

Digital Essay by Onyango Oloo in Nairobi

A few days after the opposition/civil society constitutional reform lobby group Muungano wa Katiba Mpya included the demand for a 50% + 1 presidential victory threshold as one of the non-negotiables in the upcoming minimum reforms vuta ni kuvute, Kenyans woke up one morning to discover that President Mwai Kibaki is soaring high on the opinion polls, floating on a 51% popularity crest.


Me thinks NOT.

Steadman’s Waititu & Co. insist it is a thoroughly scientific and objective indicator gleaned from polls using tried and tested poll methods.

Look, they point out, the former polls favourite from Mwingi is sagging and dipping while the media savvy Hummer owner from Lang’ata is making up some lost ground as the Presidential marathon reaches its quarter-way mark.

In an ironic case of unconscious mirth, Steadman chose to release their astonishing findings on the eve of the one day in the year devoted to practical jokes, planned silliness and unregulated foolishness.

I saw a posting on the internet from one Ottawa-based Kenyan pundit who was utterly convinced that Waititu’s boss was unleashing an unfunny April Fool’s joke on us.

To be fair to the skewed pollsters, I think they were taking their work extremely seriously and had a sense of timing of their own.

Here is my theory:

The Steadman Group is part of President Kibaki’s Reelection Campaign Team.

The outfit's quarterly polls are expected to bolster the illusion that the incumbent at State House is very popular with the Kenyan electorate and that his return to a five year term is nothing but a foregone conclusion.

I am also convinced that Steadman’s MAIN employers are NOT the local Muthaiga and Runda based Mount Kenya fat cats around the Othaya MP, but rather more sinister forces working in cahoots and at the behest of the US government.

I say this even as some media outlets point a finger at one of Kibaki’s aides as a co-owner of the polling company-but more on that later…

Why on earth would the Americans want Kibaki back in office?

Well, because like Moi, he is the devil they know and his government seems to have no qualms whatsoever in doing the bidding for US geo-political interests not just in Kenya but in the eastern Africa, Horn, Indian Ocean and Middle-Eastern region.

Sign posts which back me up are the ongoing military/intelligence/diplomatic/PR blitzkrieg whose highlights include the ongoing genocidal shelling by the Ethiopians of Mogadishu, the joint military operations to quell the Uniion of Islamic Courts challenge in fractured and fissured Somalia; the abduction of Kenyan citizens and their detention in Kenyan, Somali and Ethiopian secret prisons before their shipment to the notorious torture camp illegally located in the occupied Guantanamo Bay; the clandestine counter-terrorism efforts in our country without our collective consent; the plans to locate the command of another US military outpost in our country; using Kenya as a conduit to gain an economic and commercial beach head in Sudan and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo etc

Given these overriding ideological, commercial and geo-political imperatives, the United States government, has in my view, decided to turn a convenient blind eye to the rot of tribalism in Kibaki’s regime; the culture of impunity against corrupt Anglo-Leasing kingpins, the narco-tycoons using drug money to finance the Livondo money rainmaker types; state brutality against workers, hawkers, youth and the impoverished lumpen-proletariat and rampant violation of wananchi’s fundamental human rights.

Uncle Sam has decided to enter into the Kenyan 2007 election campaign and ensure that their man, who happens to be the lame-duck head of state named Kibaki, is back in the political saddle.

But Steadman was projecting Kalonzo Musyoka the heir apparent just a couple of months ago, I hear some of my readers loudly protest, fighting off imminent apoplectic fits.

Well, that was two months ago when the sections of the US far right religious lobby thought that the Mwingi MP was tailor made to be Kenya’s Teflon man-with his boyish good looks, his neo-conservative family values, pro-life credo and lightweight political credentials.

But it has since dawned on them and others that Kalonzo may not be able to pull off the ODM-K coronation after all, because of his lone-ranger proclivities.

How about Raila Odinga?

No less an authority than his Karen neighbour and Nyanza nemesis Raphael Tuju was claiming in Malindi not too long ago that Agwambo was too soft in denouncing the anti-terrorism bill which implicitly meant that the Lang’ata MP was a tool of the Americans, according to the country’s swaggering Foreign Affairs minister.

But that was before it became clear that would be next occupant of the White House is probably closer to Raila than any other Kenyan presidential aspirant including Mwai Kibaki who was the one who effectively fired Obama Sr when Barrack’s dad was a senior economist in Kibaki’s ministry.

If I am correct in my postulation-and I would like someone to debunk me with facts, then the stakes in the 2007 Presidential elections are much higher with all these external imperialist forces entering the fray.

Back to Steadman and opinion polling in particular.

I have not hidden my open skepticism about the efficacy, accuracy and general credibility of polls, as one can see from this October 2005 JUKWAA posting.

I spent a good chunk of today googling around for a second, third, fourth and fifth opinion and I want to share some of those perspectives now.

Nathan Solomon, a well-known US commentator had this opinion to express about opinion polls:

… The more we trust polls, the more they are likely to mislead us. Often, the fault is not in the pollsters but in ourselves: we’re too eager to believe that the numbers add up to the truth…at best, polls offer us flat snapshots of a three-dimensional world. At worst, when they are funded by partisans, polls may be purposely deceptive. In those cases, faulty polling can come back to haunt those who initially seemed to benefit from it… Regardless of their quality, polls that depict public opinion end up altering it…Some polls are skewed by intensive efforts to sway the electorate. For example, in times of crisis, many presidents have been able to orchestrate publicity that spikes the poll numbers…

Bill Kovach, another respected American journalist observed in 1990:

Our democracy is not merely a matter of registering preconceived notions and opinions of individuals. That approach was rejected in the design of our government in favor of a representative system by which matters of government would be debated and issues resolved by consensus achieved by compromise…Most public opinion surveys now conducted by news organizations record private opinion, and the consumers confuse the results with public thought. Few surveys examine the depth of understanding behind an opinion or the context of an opinion…because it focuses on the surface movements of opinion rather than their informing depths, I am afraid the press is unwittingly a part of the process of manipulating public opinion devised by the political campaigns…it is part of the old question: Do opinion polls shape opinion or they measure opinion? I think a compelling argument could be made that in the absence of strong and sustained reporting on the facts underlying an issue, polls can and do shape and create opinion...

A Wikipedia piece on public opinion notes:

…Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of the people. A continuously used technique is propaganda…The tide of public opinion becomes more and more crucial during political elections, most importantly elections determining the national executive.

A related article on the same website on opinion polls cautions its readers:

Since most people do not answer calls from strangers, or refuse to answer the poll, poll samples may not be representative samples from a population. Because of this selection bias, the characteristics of those who agree to be interviewed may be markedly different from those who decline. That is, the actual sample is a biased version of the universe the pollster wants to analyze. In these cases, bias introduces new errors, one way or the other, that are in addition to errors caused by sample sizes…Survey results may be affected by response bias, where the answers given by respondents do not reflect their true beliefs. This may be deliberately engineered by unscrupulous pollsters in order to generate a certain result or please their clients, but more often is a result of the detailed wording or ordering of questions. Respondents may deliberately try to manipulate the outcome of a poll by e.g. advocating a more extreme position than they actually hold in order to boost their side of the argument or give rapid and ill-considered answers in order to hasten the end of their questioning. Respondents may also feel under social pressure not to give an unpopular answer…Another source of error is the use of samples that are not representative of the population as a consequence of the methodology used…For example, telephone sampling has a built-in error because in many times and places, those with telephones have generally been richer than those without. Alternately, in some places, many people have only mobile telephones. Because pollsters cannot call mobile phones (it is unlawful in the USA) to make unsolicited calls to phones where the phone’s owner many be charged simply for taking a call) these individuals will never be included in the polling sample. If the subset of the population without cell phones differs markedly from the rest of the population, these differences can skew the results of the poll…By providing information about voting intentions, opinion polls can sometimes influence the behavior of electors. The various theories about how this happens can be split up into two groups: bandwagon /underdog effects, and strategic (‘tactical’) voting. A bandwagon effect occurs when the poll prompts voters to back the candidate shown to be winning in the poll…The opposite [underdog effect] occurs when people vote, out of sympathy, for the party perceived to be “losing” the elections…

The Gallup Organization is probably the world’s most well-known polling organization.

It first rose to prominence in 1936 when its founder George Gallup correctly predicted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would win by a landslide against his Republican opponent, defying the conventional wisdom and projections by the then most prestigious polling publication, the Literary Digest.

However, in the 1948 US Presidential elections, Gallup was at the centre of one of the most infamous cases of pollsters getting it 100% wrong in a presidential election:

…The presidential election of 1948 would prove almost as devastating to Gallup as the 1936 contest was to Literary Digest. Because the Democratic Party was splintered with Henry A. Wallace running for president on the Progressive party ticket and Strom Thurmond representing the Dixiecrats, Harry Truman appeared to have little chance to retain the White House against the bid of the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey. Gallup and the other major pollsters believed that public opinion only showed dramatic change when responding to important events. A poll taken after the political conventions would surely predict the winner. Gallup stopped polling in mid-October, and although he noted a surge in support for Truman, he felt confident that Dewey would win the election. All the experts agreed with him. Truman did not stop campaigning however; he beat the odds and won the election. "The pollsters became national laughingstocks", according to Michael Wheeler, author of Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics, and "Gallup, the most famous pollster of them all, took the hardest fall…"Gallup was also accused of favoritism, a charge that could prove devastating to a man whose business depended on impartiality. Although Gallup vehemently denied the he rigged polls to favor Dewey, he admitted that he considered Dewey to be a close friend and had been in contact with him throughout the 1948 campaign…Gallup’s final years were not…without controversy. In 1968, two of Gallup’s interviewers were discovered to have falsified data in a poll of Harlem residents conducted for the New York Times. More troubling were charges that Gallup’s people maintained improper ties to the Nixon administration. Poll numbers were provided before publication, allowing Nixon to prepare the public and put the best possible spin on the results. Nixon’s aides also suggested questions for the Gallup Poll, thus influencing public opinion from the outset. The Nixon administration used both Gallup and rival Louis Harris, misleading the pollsters’ associates into thinking that Nixon would not make improper use of early poll results. At the very least, the pollsters were na├»ve. The fact that Gallup officials only met with Nixon aides in a hotel rather than the White House was a tacit admission that if such contact were known to the public the company’s reputation for objectivity would be compromised…

So much then, for the much vaunted “scientific, impartial objectivity” of the so called “reputable” polling organizations in the United States of America.

Coming back to Kenya, here is what the Nairobi-based muck-racking Weekly Citizen has to say in its current (Vol.10 Issue No.16 April 2nd–8th April 2007) issue:

…Kibaki men using the once reputable Steadman pollsters have taken the war into ODM-K by having a poll survey adulterated to show that Raila is now more popular than Kalonzo. The trick is reportedly intended to worsen the ODM headache as Kibaki men want Raila to be adamant in going for the presidency. It is not lost on political watchers that Steadman Company is now partly owned by a Kibaki confidante, Joe Wanjui, Vice-Chancellor of Nairobi University...

I concur with those pundits who posit that the latest Steadman poll is a stratagem to scuttle the ODM-K opposition by fostering the myth of Kibaki’s invincibility and inevitable destiny as a two-term head of state.

We should not de-link the results of the Steadman polls from the recent fear-mongering by NSE head and Kibaki supporter Jimnah Mbaru that the identification of a single ODM-K candidate would send the stock market into a tailspin.

Was Mr. Mbaru implying that the Kenyan stock market is dominated by supporters of Kibaki? Not a very smart thing to impute, especially given the ethnic connotations of this presumed support.

Playing a supporting role is the beer-guzzling Archbishop Nding'i Mwana a'Nzeki- a bosom buddy of the Prezzo- who thinks it is part of his spiritual job description as head of the Catholic Church in this country to urge Kenyans to "accept" the verdict of the latest Steadman soothsaying.

Polling, fear mongering and planting of state propaganda in government-friendly newspapers, radio stations and television outlets have been staples of American political campaigns for over one hundred years.

The importation of the same odious and opprobrious tactics into Kenya’s election year underscores the extent to which Uncle Sam is desperate to influence and dictate the outcome of the Kenyan presidential elections. I have alluded to the ideological and geo-political motivations.

Memo to the back room American strategists and spinmeisters burning the midnight oil plotting Kibaki’s re-election:

You are wasting your time and frittering American tax payers’ money by backing the wrong donkey (Oops! Sorry, meant to say horse).

Mwai Kibaki’s time-barred regime will reprise its Referendum 2005 fate.

Relying on the 2002 professorial loser Daniel arap Moi for bedrock support is like Barrack Obama asking Newt Gingrich to go to bat for the US Democrats.

Bad, doomed idea in short.

In my opinion, the current wrangles and pitched battles in NARC-Kenya, DP and NARC presents the ODM-K with a potential golden harvest. Mukhisa Kituyi, Danson Mungatana and Kipruto Kirwa are now pariahs as far as the REAL OWNERS of that Mount Kenya party are concerned. DP to its credit has kicked out Mwiraria, Kiraitu, Karua and other NARC-K high flyers while Ngilu has refused to be compromised to give way for Kibaki in the shell of the original NARC.

In sharp contrast to the fake braggadocio permeating Steadman’s rosy poll projections, Team Kibaki actually lies in near shambles at the moment even as the septuagenarian and octogenarian tribal comprador tycoons cocoon themselves in a self-delusionary bubble of a decades-long Mt. Kenya Reich lording over Kenyans from here to eternity.

ODM-K should move left wards to embrace progressive elements in civil society and anti-imperialist formations while consolidating its social base by being vocal in issues affecting workers, students, women, youth, Muslims, marginalized ethno-cultural minorities and so on.

I will elaborate more on some of these suggestions in the coming days…

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya