Sunday, February 24, 2013

It’s time to address the undecided voter

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 24 February 2013

Just seven days before our defining General Election under the new constitution, we should be witnessing the most intense campaigns aimed at convincing the undecided voter to select one candidate over the others. Instead, politicians continue to appeal to the same issues that energise their base and alienate their opponents’ supporters.

I shall dispense some free advice to the contending politicians. This week, they should organise their campaigns to appeal to the truly undecided voter. Those who think there are no voters of this type should simply save the money they are wasting in campaigns and invest it in something more profitable.

According to some of the recent opinion polls, up to three per cent of registered voters are undecided this late into the campaign period. Due to the predicted closeness of the election results, it is plausible that whoever will convince this segment of the electorate in the coming week will go into the polls with a greater chance of achieving the magical 50 per cent plus one threshold to win the election outright.

The candidates, therefore, need to discover the characteristics of this voting bloc and tailor their message to address this segment’s concerns. A key requirement for the candidates will be to convince this group to actually go out and vote on election day. 

Tailor message

In the event that no candidate addresses their concerns, it is highly likely that undecided voters will choose to watch from the sidelines. It will take a candidate or political party that tailors its message to their wavelength to convince them to go out and vote.

As far as the profile of the Kenyan undecided voter is concerned, none of the pollsters have pursued this angle in their reports, although one hopes that the candidates have conducted their own internal polls on this subject. If not, they could reanalyse the data provided by pollsters, focussing on the characteristics and opinions of those voters that are categorised as undecided.

Due to the nature of Kenyan politics and the manner in which voters make their decisions, one could make a few observations on the likely characteristics of the undecided voter.

This voter is likely to be female aged between 18 and 35 years and living in an urban or peri-urban area.
She probably considers herself too busy to engage in politics. Her key concerns will have to do with transport and security, as well as the need to have a steady income to take care of her needs including food, housing, clothing and recreation.

The matters currently being canvassed on the national stage such as land and farming, the International Criminal Court, national unity and historical injustices register only distantly in her mind. In fact, when she does encounter them, they do not resonate with her needs and aspirations, and they will not affect her decision one way or the other.

Talk of violence makes her wonder if she should not apply for that hard-to-get Green Card after all. Above all, although she has some connection to her tribe, she has friends from all over the country, and her choice of spouse will most likely be from another ethnic group.

I could be wrong, but this is the voter our presidential candidates may need to convince in order to have a clearer chance of winning this election. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at the Moi University’s school of medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Such faith healing claims dangerous

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 17 February 2013

Last Tuesday, the Daily Nation carried a feature story that quoted a medical doctor working for the National Aids and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control Programme as saying that he had documented dozens of HIV/Aids patients who had supposedly been “healed” by an itinerant preacher. The preacher, presented as a top-notch scientist, was alleged to have wrought uncountable medical miracles, and the story cited a few cases of named individuals who claimed to have been cured of HIV by this preacher.

Unlike the common HIV cure claims, most faith-based “cures” are practically unverifiable because they concern illnesses for which objective evidence is difficult to come by, or symptoms that may be produced by hundreds of different largely benign conditions. Most patients who benefit most from “faith healers” and other practitioners of “alternative medicine” suffer from psychological afflictions whose treatment even in the conventional setting involves more talking than pills.

Examples abound of patients who have been healed by these “alternative practitioners” after sudden onset of blindness, deafness, muteness and paralysis. Many of the “healers” themselves are not utterly convinced about the veracity of their claims, because they have often been equally surprised by the instances of “healing”. Because they do not understand how it happened, they attribute it to divine intervention, spirits or occult forces depending on their underlying philosophical orientation.

Believers in these “healers” would be utterly flabbergasted if they visited a clinic run by a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist. On a daily basis, these highly trained mental health practitioners receive and treat several patients with exactly the same conditions described above. Many patients who suddenly went blind, deaf, mute, or got paralysed after a particularly stressful or traumatic event, enter the consultation rooms of these professionals and leave completely symptom-free.

The question therefore arises: Do mental health workers perform “miracles” similar to those procured by preachers and their ilk? Why don’t psychiatrists and psychologists then make claims of possessing supernatural powers to heal any and all illnesses? The answer is simply that these powers do not exist. The illnesses described above fall under a category of disorders well known to anyone who has received even rudimentary training in psychology, and are managed by means of psychotherapies that help patients to deal with their problems using more adaptive means.

The same techniques cannot be used to “cure” blindness due to actual damage to the visual apparatus, or paralysis due to injury to the nerves. The problem with the so-called “faith healers” is that they encounter instances of patients with these psychological illnesses who get instant “healing” and then generalise this effect to people with all kinds of illnesses. Herein lies the danger of endorsing their methods wholesale.

In the cited article, it is claimed that the preacher can “cure” people with HIV/Aids, and evidence is purportedly adduced to that effect. Being high-level scientists, one would have expected both the preacher and the doctor who endorses him to submit their claims to a peer-reviewed publication for validation and publication.

The truth of the matter is that there is currently no known cure for HIV, whether herbal, spiritual or conventional. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and a senior lecturer at the Moi University’s school of medicine; @LukoyeAtwoli

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don’t stifle free speech in the name of peace

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 10 February 2013

In the corridors of power, a consensus seems to be emerging that the only way to guarantee that the 2008 conflagration is not repeated this year is to issue a series of bans on behaviour that is considered “dangerous”. Among other things, discussing “historical injustices” and land ownership seem to have been flagged as topping the “not-to-do” list, and government officials have come out strongly suggesting a ban on these issues.

As has already been pointed out by one of the contending political parties, land is an election issue this year, and this has been the case in every free election we have had since the reintroduction of multiparty politics. The so-called “historical injustices” are also used at every election to galvanise a section of ostensibly marginalised communities to vote for a presumed “saviour” who “will right all the historical wrongs”.

At every election, Kenyans are promised solutions to these problems, and after every election, little is done to deal with them. According to some reports, in the last General Election land and “historical injustices” were in some regions dressed up in the clothing of a tribe, and the solution then was a simple one of eliminating the offending tribe.

Obviously, then, these are highly emotive issues that have to be handled with the requisite sensitivity that is often lacking on the political platform. But this does not provide the license to ban discussion on these issues in order to forestall possible post-election mayhem.

In my opinion, banning discussion on these issues amounts to sweeping them under the carpet, which is more dangerous than allowing free discussion and ventilation by those affected. Further, purporting to ban these topics infringes on the freedom of speech of Kenyans as enshrined in the Constitution.

The net effect of these bans is to postpone the discussion to a future where the truth will always be the first casualty as is always the case in politics. Bottling up difficult topics is a well-recognised path to conflict, and the only way to mitigate this is to allow the issues to be exhaustively addressed in a manner that clarifies matters truthfully and in a civilised manner.

Instead of banning discussion on these topics, the responsible authorities should indeed be organising debates between the political parties in order to hear from them how they will go about dealing with them if elected.
For instance, getting a party’s commitment to ensure that the National Land Commission is fully facilitated to carry out its constitutional mandate would be a fine beginning.

Instead of harping on the much-maligned Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) and its mandate concerning “historical injustices”, politicians should be encouraged to pledge to deal once and for all with those grievances.

Allowing discussion on these issues will expose the common ground all political parties hold as far as they are concerned, and will serve to reduce the acrimony related to them. Holding politicians to account for allegations they make in political rallies should reduce wild allegations, and perhaps prompt the victims of such allegations to give the true version of events.

Above all, the police and the NCIC should concentrate on their core mandates related to keeping the peace, instead of arrogating themselves new powers to control campaign content.

May the best candidates win. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli Secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and Senior Lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Opinion polls gauge population’s electoral behaviour

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 03 February 2013

As we approach the General Election, many people, especially politicians, have been arguing for the banning of opinion polls ostensibly because they increase the risk of violence after the ballots are cast and the results are out. Their argument is that in the event that the election is won by candidates other than those predicted by opinion polls, violence would erupt on the assumption that rigging would have taken place.

In my view, such arguments are spurious and fail to take into consideration the science behind opinion polling, and the reasons it is done.

Scientists attempt to explain the phenomena we observe in our everyday life using a scientific method. As far as elections are concerned, we can only understand a population’s electoral behaviour by asking representative samples specific questions and then comparing them with the outcome of an actual election. Repeated observations of this nature will result in relatively accurate predictions of future electoral choices, information that would be of obvious benefit to anyone interested in influencing voter behaviour in their favour; in other words, the politicians.

The long and short of it is that opinion polls are in fact of more use to the politician than to the common citizen or the media. It, therefore, defeats reason for the greatest beneficiaries of the polls to call for their banning, especially after particularly unfavourable results for them. 

Unenviable position

If I were in their unenviable positions, I would use the results of an opinion poll to tailor my message to the voters, ensuring that my popularity rises exponentially by the next opinion poll.

The bashing of social scientists who organise opinion polls in this country is not isolated behaviour. Over time, Kenyans have developed the habit of denigrating professional work whenever the outcomes rub them the wrong way.

We will not listen to an economist who demonstrates that our presidential candidate’s economic blueprint is not worth the paper it is printed on. We will dismiss the opinion of a brilliant lawyer when she suggests that our candidate should be rotting in jail, not vying for political office.

The tragedy is that as a result of such cynical behaviour by the Kenyan populace, professionals are also gradually getting drawn into the conflict. This should not be surprising given that these professionals and their role models are also Kenyans whose attitudes are forged in the same crucible as those of the common citizen.

It is, therefore, not surprising to find a statistician who will rubbish an opinion poll, claiming that its methodology was flawed when, in actual fact, he only disagrees with its findings and their implications. Similarly, lawyers are notorious for talking out of both sides of the mouth on any issue, depending on who is footing the bill.

In my opinion, all these disagreements are healthy and must be encouraged because they help to strengthen the rigour of our systems. However, it is ridiculous to go as far as suggesting the banning of scientific endeavours on account of such arguments.

Only an unreconstructed Luddite would vigorously advocate the banning of opinion polls on the grounds that they foment division and conflict. On the contrary, it must be understood that opinion polls actually measure the risk of division and conflict, enabling the responsible authorities to act and eliminate the risks. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

It’s unfair to blame middle class for weak nominations

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 27 January 2013

During the recently concluded political party nominations for various positions across the country, an idea emerged that is now gaining so much credence as to acquire the appearance of veracity. This is the idea that the Kenyan middle class failed to use its influence to get good leaders nominated for the elections, resulting in a choice restricted only to under-educated, uninspiring fellows.

This idea emanated from the observation that Kenyans on social media were almost unanimous that the likes of Ferdinand (Clifford) Waititu, Mike Sonko and their fellow travellers have no place in the governance of any unit in a modern state. Despite this unanimity, Kenyans went ahead and gave these individuals overwhelming support in the party primaries, ensuring that at least some of them will win in the forthcoming General Election.

Bolstering this argument is the perception that the social media set represents the Kenyan middle class, and that this class is sufficiently populous and influential to determine the direction the vote will take. These are perceptions that cannot stand close scrutiny.

Firstly, social media is now available to Kenyans of all classes, seeing as the Internet is accessible to almost anyone with a mobile phone in this country. The sentiments being expressed on social media must, therefore, not be assumed to be largely (or exclusively) those of middle class Kenyans, but those of Kenyans with Internet access.

Secondly, the assumption that cities like Nairobi (and perhaps the entire country) are made up of largely middle class families is completely fallacious. Nairobi is a city of the poor, and Kenya, as we all acknowledge, is a largely poor country. Assuming that the middle class vote would have made a difference in the nominations, or even in the General Election, is therefore very presumptuous.

For instance, perhaps two thirds or more of the Nairobi population lives in extreme poverty, and only a tiny minority constitutes the true middle class. It does not make sense to expect that this minority group in Kenya can influence the opinion of the majority poor. In any case, their needs and aspirations are on opposite ends of any social, political or economic spectrum.

Finally, the assumption that the middle class is so influential that all it takes for them to make a difference is to “educate” everyone else and show up at the polling station is equally fallacious. Influence, that intangible thing, does not necessarily follow wealth.

While it is true that the middle class usually has the most to lose under incompetent leadership, it is not always true that members of this class understand or even care about this fact. Often, those that understand and care are a minority, and their influence can only go so far.

The long and short of it is that it is grossly unfair to blame an economic minority for the “failings” of the majority. If the leaders nominated by the political parties are weak and incompetent, it is the leadership of political parties that should be blamed for allowing them to run in the first place. Parties have the responsibility to vet and select aspirants in a manner that ensures that no matter which one of them wins, the country would remain in good hands.

However, like the man said, we always get the leadership we deserve. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Asssociation and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; @lukoyeatwoli

Politicians must denounce their violent supporters

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 20 January 2013

As we enter the home stretch towards the epochal General Election in March, many events are taking place that give the lie to the assumption that we are a functioning democracy. Some indicators have already emerged that we are most likely just paying lip-service to the concept of democracy while secretly wishing we could rig the system such that no matter what happens, our preferred candidate comes out on top.

Firstly, campaign violence is rearing its ugly head again. People are being attacked, maimed and even killed in the guise of campaign activity. Five years ago I argued in the Daily Nation that giving crime labels such as “political violence” only “legitimises crime and allows people to carry out barbaric acts without fearing the repercussions”. In that article, I was warning about the risk of escalation of conflict beyond that which is manageable if we allowed politics to be the excuse for violence.

I argued for the “strict, impartial and severe application of the law” in order to deter hooligans who wore political masks and went out to harm others, knowing that their political god-fathers would raise a ruckus if the law took its course. I regret that I have to repeat this warning as we march towards the elections.

Secondly, political arguments are becoming more and more shrill, with the tribal essence driving it all becoming more and more evident. 

Tribal innuendo

A recent opinion poll resulted in the CEO of the polling company being called a tribalist because her polls showed that a candidate who might share her ethnicity was leading. The resulting insults and both sexist and tribal innuendo would make anyone who knows how violence is prepared cringe.

We know from history that before all-out violence breaks out, the potential perpetrators must be psychologically prepared for it. This is often done by gradually softening them and reducing the innate human aversion to shedding human blood, often by portraying the potential targets as something less than human. It begins by showing examples of evil people within the target group, and both personalising and magnifying the potential harm posed by them. 

The message

Next, their evil deeds are compared to the behaviour of animals and, gradually, the message is subtly passed that it is okay to attack them whenever one gets an opportunity. Once the ground has been prepared thus, it takes only a small infraction for the potential perpetrators to be aroused into “righteous anger” that sends them into a genocidal frenzy, which eventually begins to feed off itself.

The perpetrators go about their grim business without a care, and if you confront them later, they may either explain it away as something that was necessary at that time, or they may just exclaim that they did not know what they were doing then.

The emergence of tribal “Councils of Elders” that give political edicts with threats of damnation to “their people” will only serve to legitimise any dehumanisation of the opponent, changing elections into a matter of life and death for most of those involved. For the sake of our children’s future, we must stop this jingoistic nonsense.

I challenge all the political party leaders to denounce any of their supporters who engage in violent acts, and to allow law enforcers to do their job. 

Dr Atwoli is secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and senior lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine.; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli
So. I've been away for about three weeks, and during this time I was unable to post anything on the blog. Coming up as three postings to cover the period I was away!