On Paul Achar’s Best Communicators 2014

Paul Achar’s article in the Daily Nation on best communicators of 2014 provided an interesting read assessing the communicative effectiveness of the Kenya’s leading public figures last year. The criteria he used included his blog’s tagline: communicate, create, connect expanded into credibility, humility, passion, goodwill, knowledge, great delivery, authentic (sic), likeability and trust.

Classic scholars of rhetoric had long distilled these characteristics into the concept of source credibility and the more recent African studies in contextualizing them found some variability. The variables could form a subject of conversation on another day.

Paul ranks Kenya’s first lady, Ms. Margaret Kenyatta, highly followed by among others Oscar Awards winner Ms. Lupita Nyongo, the Deputy President William Ruto and some nondescript business and religious figures.

Kenya’s president falls in the middle of Paul’s table followed by poor performers, a list in which he includes former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, preacher Victor Kanyari, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, fiction writer Binyavanga Wainaina, and surprisingly Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore.

Of course Mr. Achar is giving his opinion and there is nothing wrong with that. However, while opinion and blog is private, publication in a mass circulating medium authenticates the opinion and situates it in the domain of the public thus inviting debate.

Some speakers are made great by a single speech while others may rely on the stars lining up in their favor.

The Gettysburg speech made Abraham Lincoln. John F. Kennedy, the youngest yet President of the United States killed too soon, still stirs the land of the brave from beyond his grave with his rallying call at his inaugural address: “… my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”

The 2004 Democratic Convention speech defined Barack Obama. “I have a Dream” speech immortalized Martin Luther King Jr., Lupita Nyongo, that petite lass from the lakeside, has the future before her yet her acceptance speech at the Oscars and her delivery at Black Women in Hollywood – a speech that captured the imagination of black women and indeed black people, were no small achievements.

It is hard to forget Julius Nyerere declaring war on Uganda in “Kazi Moja Tu” speech. I must quote him: “Uwezo wa kumpiga tunayo. Sababu ya kumpiga tunayo. Na nia ya kumpiga tunayo”. The speech galvanized the nation; soldiers leaped across River Kagera in confidence and exposed Amin’s bragging. Winston Churchill rallied Britain against the Nazis through his speeches.

This nation has had some impressive communicators too: the wordsmith Kijana Wamalwa, unionists Tom Mboya and Boy Juma Boy, Ronald Ngala, the old horse Jomo Kenyatta and his son is a chip from the old block. Paul has judged the President, and certainly Bob Collymore, rather harshly.

I had the privilege of sitting through several of Mr. Collymore’s public performances this year. In all the instances he dressed for the occasion, was alive to the context, made reference to his immediate surrounding, stayed on the message, maintained eye contact, demonstrated his expertise, had an impressive language command, was polished, and stayed on just long enough to make his point. I could go on. Bob was good.

It is fair to be less harsh on the president. A couple of instances may be worth exploring to more objectively assess his communicative performance.

On the ICC case the president’s message was clear. He was not subjecting the country into a subordinate of the ICC, the ICC prosecutor had no evidence with which to bring him to account, and the case needed to be withdrawn.

It was not just the president staying on his message but the state apparatchik including the Attorney General, the cabinet Secretary for foreign Affairs and other state officials. The message carried the day when Ms Bensouda withdrew the case.

Was it not the president who refocused Kenya’s foreign policy strategy to East African integration and continental collaboration, stuck to it so fiercely that it was the global community that buckled and sat with him at the head of the table in New York the other day? I believe Kenya sits high at the top of the continental table and that is an achievement for a man who is marking his second year in office.

I doubt that there has ever been a time when continental diplomacy revolved around Kenya as it has done in the last year. The president’s other projects, the SGR, security bill, energy generation, power connectivity to schools are largely on course.

But cut Paul some slack. This is not a campaign period. I would reduce the president’s visibility on some occasions, let him dance less, and certainly reign in on the seemingly uncoordinated op-eds and interviews that emerge from a team in his office from time to time.

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