Done well, as a craft, punditry serves an essential if the complementary role of enhancing and enriching journalism. However, increasingly, punditry in Kenya, especially on TV is nothing but a low-grade weaponized banality packaged as profound, with most of the TV pundits obscuring rather than illuminating. It is not uncommon to hear people make a declarative statement, almost as a badge of honor, “I don’t watch TV” or imploring others to “fast” from the TV because of the “junk” diet.
Liberalization of the airwaves- a transition from having only one TV station- Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) to now over 20 TV stations have also coincided with the declining quality of political discourse and media analysis.
No one has done more in entrenching the banal sub-genre of junk TV punditry than Jeff Koinange and Mutahi Ngunyi.
Koinange’s career can broadly be delineated into two neat broad parts bookending each other; Koinange the serious journalist who interviewed warlords in some of the troubled regions of the world chasing consequential stories, and the latter-day Koinange, the circus ringmaster who interviews people with questionable character and standing on the “bench” with his catchphrase, “it is smoking hot in here, call the Fire Department” and other abracadabra.
Koinange’s stellar journalism was followed by awards; he was the first African to win an Emmy for his coverage of the devastating famine in Niger in 2005, he was part of CNN’s Peabody Award-winning team that covered the devastation wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2006. In 2006, Koinange was also awarded the Prix Bayeaux for War Correspondents for his reporting on the civil war in the Congo. These are no mean achievements to be scoffed at.
Parallel to Koinange’s joining Kenyan TV stations after CNN, Mutahi Ngunyi was emerging as a local analyst effortlessly dispensing his wisdom as the man on the Hill. With his methodical, slow, deliberate, and somewhat calculated way of speaking Mutahi established himself as the -go-to political analyst.
Before becoming a pundit Mutahi was an original thinker, analyst, and writer. During his early years at Series on Alternative Research in East Africa (SAREAT), Mutahi oversaw some of the perceptive work was on security, governance, and the economy.
For instance, Alternative Research in East Africa (SAREAT) piece entitled Liberalising the Bandit Economy in Kenya, Mutahi argued, “Crime and corruption generate much more than most sectors of the formal economy in Kenya do. Put together, carjacking, land grabbing, government corruption, bank robberies, cattle rustling, drug, and arms trafficking comprise a vibrant bandit economy probably more viable than the formal economy.” While most of these workers were done in the background, once he started doing regular media punditry, Mutahi pivoted to edgy, provocative if not counter-intuitive punditry.
In his later years If Koinange invented the manual on self-congratulations where confidence and not competence is the currency, Ngunyi 2.0 earned a legion of fans as the high priest of cosmic meaninglessness with his ability to transcend the preconceptions of everyday banalities and offer a panoramic view of humanity – as though he’s orbiting the earth from ten thousand miles and transmitting his wisdom. If Koinange is loud and unmissable, Ngunyi is relatively quiet and almost forgettable, yet more potent.
Most of these Koinange’s interviews with the invited pundits are juvenile and in some cases downright crass. Many are nothing but a PR opportunity to launder their images of people adversely mentioned involvement in egregious human rights violations, like the one he did with the South Sudanese Lawrence Lual Malong Yor Jr, who claimed he was blessed. Even more galling, Jeff does these interviews with nonchalant gleefulness egging on his subjects to double down on one ridiculous statement after another. In this interview with Miguna and Passaris, in which Miguna blatantly engaged in misogynistic and sexist attacks on Passaris. Confident that he can get away with it, Koinange was cheering on and acting like he is helpless while an inebriated Tony Gachoka walked off the show, during a prime time interview. Never mind some of the issues discussed on the show have some significant national bearing.
Koinange’s shows, whether Capital Talk on K24, Jeff Koinange Live on KTN, and Koinange Live on Citizen, all follow the same plot. Koinange introduces the guest with over the top praise, the celebrity or pundit proceeds to under-deliver, rinse, and repeat. It doesn’t matter if the topic is a matter of national importance or something mundane, Koinange’s approach is the same. Cheered on by media managers and owners desperate for ratings and hence ad shillings, Koinange has inspired a whole new sub-genre.
In the end, the once professional journalist, Koinange has turned into a bland simulacrum of his former self. However, he’s just microcosm of a sector that needs a reboot if it ever earns of trust and legitimacy it enjoyed during former times.
For Mutahi, once he took up punditry, he specialized in edgy and provocative in his weekly “soapbox” column, the Transition. His genre-bending counterfactual analysis parsing Kenya’s politics was timely during the late 1990s and early 2000s, TV’s golden age in Kenya. Following the liberalization of the airwaves, TV stations needed to fill airtime and compete, especially on the cheap. The production costs of interview programs with a studio guest were low; showcasing new angles, fresh faces, and different voices were the ticket; in Ngunyi’s case, his spick and span dressing didn’t hurt either.
One of the things that make Mutahi tower above his contemporaries is his sharp sense of entrepreneurship. With the growing popularity of social media, Mutahi started shifted from the mainstream media to social media. On Twitter, Mutahi has 1.22 M followers, but he follows only nine accounts and handles. Twitter has become his pulpit from where he tweets a mixture of aphorism, rebuke, and congratulations, mostly targeted at public officials, with Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, and William Ruto receiving disproportionate attention. Mutahi’s focus on Odinga earned him wrath once, for his Tweet, “Raila should be put on TRIAL. The JUDGE: poverty-stricken LUOs. And LUHYAs craving his bondage. CHARGE: selfishness, selfishness, selfishness.” forcing him to give a goat to the Luo Council of Elders.
As a demonstration of his acumen, Mutahi started a YouTube channel, the 5th Estate, which he manages through the Fort Hall School of Government, a soapbox from where he regales his over 61,000 subscribers with an assortment of wannabe young scholars on a weekly basis. On the International Day Of Happiness, Mutahi announced on his Twitter that, “5th Estate is NOW a TV STATION. POSITIVE, and HAPPY. Looking for YOUNG and RAW Talent. No EXPERIENCE NEEDED. If CLEVER, I will train you”.
Koinange and Mutahi have inspired many fellow travelers who have attempted to replicate them with a mixed degree of success. These copycats TV show hosts and pundits have diluted TV journalism and in the process continue to feed viewers junk. Personality-driven TV journalism and punditry has had a deleterious effect on governance. At the time when much-hardnosed journalism is required, Mutahi and Koinange have inspired journalism that amuses the audience to death rather than inform and educate.
This form of dumbing down journalism imperils the quality governance considering the risks of the outsized role propaganda machines like Cambridge Analytica and online influencers can play