Anyone with knowledge of Kenya’s electoral history is not surprised that the country’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission a little more than a year ago listed Nakuru, a town in the Rift Valley, among five major urban centres likely to be affected by violence during the 2022 election campaign season. The other towns are Kisumu, Eldoret, Mombasa, and the capital Nairobi.
It was in Nairobi and Nakuru that Journalists For Justice (JFJ) chose to stage its Kenyan chapter of the “Justice Through African Eyes” cartoon exhibition just four months before the general election that is scheduled for August 9. It is a time of heightened emotions, with citizens grouped in opposing camps fuelled by the increasingly polarising rhetoric of leaders on both sides of the political divide.
Therefore, some of the cartoons on display at the Nakuru Social Hall in Shabab area on March 31, 2022 were bound to provoke a sharp reaction from the citizens who attended the exhibition. Several youths were not happy about some of the cartoons that depicted some political leaders that they supported in an unflattering light. They accused JFJ of being the agent of forces opposed to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration.
One cartoon that sparked an angry reaction depicted the president choking the life out of the judiciary by kneeling on its neck. The cartoon seemed to have been inspired by the death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. A video of the murder that went viral sparked protests against racism and policing all over the US.
Gado, East and Central Africa’s most syndicated cartoonist, produced the “offending” artwork, which was displayed under the electoral justice section. It reflected the rocky relationship that has persisted between the judiciary and the Kenyatta administration. The Supreme Court’s historic nullification of the 2017 presidential poll results due to what it termed “illegalities” did not endear the judiciary to the government of the day. At that politically charged moment in Kenya’s history, the president and his deputy, William Ruto, as well as pro-government politicians, publicly criticised the judiciary, with Kenyatta promising to “revisit” the issue at a later date should he be re-elected in the repeat poll the Supreme Court judges had ordered.
As would be expected, their reaction elicited widespread condemnation, with many people expressing concern about the independence of the Kenyan judiciary.
Five years later, the political scene has undergone a shift of tectonic proportions, placing President Kenyatta and his erstwhile close ally Ruto on polar opposite sides. Their supporters do not welcome any criticism directed at them, even through a cartoon, which aims to use a humourous twist to comment on important matters affecting the society.
“You are agents of UDA (United Democratic Alliance),” one of the youths shouted, brushing aside the organisers’ pleas to approach the matter with an open mind instead of looking at it from a partisan political angle. UDA is Ruto’s political party. The protester completely ignored the fact that JFJ is a non-partisan, non-governmental organisation whose mandate includes seeking justice for victims and accountability for atrocity crimes.
Ironically, the visitors’ reaction could be interpreted as validation of one of Gado’s own explanations of what he hopes to achieve with his cartoons.
“The job of the editorial cartoonist is to inform, educate, and entertain, act as a mirror of society, to say things that other mediums would be afraid to say. It is the craft which truly allows, has the licence to offend, as an editorial cartoonist, you talk truth to power, incorporating a bit of humour in it,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with IRIN News, a non-profit online media outlet which in 2015 became The New Humanitarian.
The cartoonist’s philosophy dovetails with one of JFJ’s values, which describes itself as having “…summoned up the courage to speak truth to power by taking on and publicising sensitive subjects that other media houses have dared not to touch in order to avoid offending … powerful interests.”
The Tanzanian artist whose name is Godfrey Mwampembwa has published many works on Africa’s electoral democracy, especially unfair political justice systems featuring several African leaders, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, and former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh.
“We, political cartoonists, are supposed to tell the story, to speak the truth. As a satirist of course you have a duty to tell the emperor that he is naked, and that is as delicate as it it sounds,” he told Deutsche Welle in an April 2016 interview.
Nakuru was one of the major towns affected by the post-election violence of 2007/2008 which led to the death of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. It also resulted in Kenya’s two cases at the International Criminal Court in which Uhuru and Ruto were indicted for crimes against humanity. However, the cases failed to continue due to lack of evidence which was blamed on witness interference.
The cartoon exhibition showcased a selection from a rich array of some of the continent’s most visible cartoonists on Africa’s justice narratives and voices. The presentation included contributions from household names such as South African Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), French-Burkinabe Damien Glez (Glez), Sudanese Osman Ali Obaid Alamin, Ivorian Karlos Guédé Gou (Liadé Guedé Carlos Digbeu), Kenyan Paul Kelemba (Maddo), and Kenya’s first female editorial cartoonist, Celestine Wamiru (Celeste).
Despite the altercation, other youths who visited the exhibition hall were quite interested in the cartoons, although many confessed that they were not familiar with most of the artists. Some said they were surprised at how easily they understood the messages although they had never seen the works before. They lauded the cartoon exhibition as an appropriate medium to educate young people on issues around justice especially during election seasons.
“The human mind works in a unique way. The huge amounts of information gathered as one reads can become too much for it to process. Sometimes it is better when put in the form of pictures and other images. The saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ applies here,” Nakuru resident Tonney Owino said.
He praised Maddo’s famous weekly satirical page, It’s a Madd Madd World, published in Kenya’s oldest newspaper, The Standard. He described the Kenyan artist’s work as a one-stop-shop for what is happening in society because he covers different issues, including social and electoral justice, politics, and entertainment.
Cartoons are a new approach to conveying and simplifying the message around justice. The use of a combination of images and words, welded together by artistic wit and wisdom, gives cartoons efficiency and influence in creating a shared understanding of issues.
Africa’s cartoonists have been some of the most consistent voices in debates on important subjects that touch on people’s lives, including justice, democracy, human rights, and electoral processes. The artists have become a collective voice against impunity, calling out double standards and exposing contradictions in Africa’s dealings with these subjects.
JFJ’s first cartoon show was in Banjul, The Gambia, in February 2022 and the second one was in Nairobi at the Cheche Gallery, Kenya Cultural Centre from March 16 to 31, 2022.
The Nakuru show concluded with an InstaLive session that was moderated by content creator and digital activist Esther Kazungu and JFJ’s Digital Media Associate Waceke Njoroge. Celeste, who participated in the session, spoke about her experiences as a cartoonist and said the use of images is universal and essential in communication.
An online digital show of the cartoons is expected to be launched later in the year.