Adios Caesar! Opinion polls now part of social discourse

Caesar Handa

Caesar Handa, who played for Gor Mahia at some point, speaks during a Gor Mahia Legends meeting in Nairobi in May 2023. Handa died at the Nairobi Hospital on January 17, 2023. 

Photo credit: Pool

The death of my dear friend and professional colleague, Caesar Handa, on January 17, brought back cherished memories of our thrilling venture into the previously unexplored realm of political polling in Kenya.

This journey began in 1997, fueled by an insatiable sense of adventure, youthful exuberance, and a burning desire to test our newly acquired expertise in communication, public relations, and research.

Together with Caesar, Peter Oriare, and myself, we founded Strategic Public Relations and Research Ltd (SPR&R), which paved the way for political opinion polling in Kenya.

While Peter and Caesar were communication practitioners, I contributed the social science quantitative researcher/statistician component. Caesar had recently relocated from Ace Communication and assumed leadership of the team, bringing with him a structured and organised approach, as well as unwavering belief in our shared dream. Oriare, on the other hand, divided his time between a teaching position at Daystar University and his role at SPR&R.

This period marked a time of monumental change in the country, characterised by four significant factors: It followed the first multiparty elections in Kenya, which sparked a push for constitutional reform; the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (Kanu), led by President Daniel arap Moi, frowned upon and, to a large extent, suppressed dissent; However, civic space was vibrant, fostering critical thinking and transformative ideas, with the media consistently pushing boundaries to expand freedom of the press and expression; CNN, as a news broadcaster, gained peak reach in Kenya, especially with coverage of the 1996 US presidential election.

In this political and media environment, we saw an opportunity to design a new product, political opinion polling, alongside market and communication research. Our first challenge was securing financial support. We approached various civil society organisations and foreign embassies, which yielded the following responses: The US embassy expressed interest but couldn’t support us since SPR&R was not a non-governmental organisation. The Embassy of Finland, however, showed enthusiasm and provided crucial initial support that set us on the path to conducting the first political opinion poll in Kenya.

Our initial poll focused on the push for constitutional change, and we presented the results at a press conference held at Chester House, a popular venue for Kenya’s press corps. Despite hearing scaremongering and warnings that the Moi government might take action against us, no such incidents occurred. Next, we approached Nation Media Group (NMG) to publish the poll results. This led to an invitation for a meeting to discuss our funding sources, methodology, and technical capabilities. After the meeting, NMG concluded that we were knowledgeable and credible. Following a thorough evaluation of SPR&R, NMG commissioned us to conduct a poll on the 1997 General Election, a mere 10 days before the actual polls.

This national poll covered all constituencies and focused on parliamentary and presidential elections. Although the results were ready two days before the elections, NMG chose not to publish them, and we never discovered the reasons behind this decision, despite receiving payment.

The first non-media entity to commission a poll was “The Basic Needs Are Basic Rights Working Group”, a coalition of NGOs advocating social and economic rights in the new constitution. This effort eventually influenced the inclusion of that chapter in the new constitution.

The first political group to commission a poll was New Kanu. This occurred after the ruling party and Raila Odinga’s National Democratic Party merged, leading to succession battles centered around the nomination of Uhuru Kenyatta as New Kanu’s presidential candidate. Our poll placed Uhuru at number four, but the results were never officially presented to the commissioner.

Shortly after, I joined NMG as the research manager, and SPR&R shifted its focus to communications and PR, ceasing its involvement in opinion polling. At NMG, I concentrated on media research and conducted a few internal polls leading up to the 2002 General Election, which brought the Mwai Kibaki presidency into power. Polling subsequently became a valuable and regular tool in the ongoing push for constitutional change until the realisation of the 2010 Constitution.

With increased political activity surrounding and after the 2007 General Election, and the expansion of political and communication space during the Kibaki administration, other polling firms such as Angela Ambitho’s Infotrack and Roger Steadman’s Steadman & Associate, a longstanding media monitoring and audience research firm (Now George Waititu’s Ipsos), and Maggie Ireri’s Tifa emerged to conduct opinion polling.

Opinion polling has now become an accepted part of political and social discourse in Kenya and the region. Its intended purposes include informing strategy, serving as an advocacy tool, evaluating campaigns and political activities, and providing situational analysis.

However, it has also become largely about demonstrating imagined strength. The polling industry is vibrant and has become a major employer. This commercial expansion has raised questions about the integrity of polling practices and fidelity to the scientific polling process.

Of concern is the use of technology in polling. Telemarketing has evolved into telesurveys, and this shift has somewhat compromised the rigor of the scientific polling process. Furthermore, the advent of the internet and social media has introduced new challenges, as regulation and standards in these platforms are largely individualised.

Addressing these concerns, we must acknowledge the rise of mass consumption and the subsequent lowering of the stringent standards that SPR&R went through during the publication of our first political poll. Perhaps this lowering of the bar is not unique to opinion polling but is reflective of various aspects of life in Kenya.

Polling played a significant role in shaping strategies to challenge the Kanu dictatorship, in campaigning for and implementing the 2010 Constitution, in strengthening civil vigilance in Kenya, and in introducing issue-based political discourse in the country.

The passing of Caesar is an opportune moment to reflect on this remarkable journey, shaped by his passion, work ethic (we spent whole nights analysing polling data to have the results ready the next morning), structured and moderating perspective and the support of friends who shared in that dream.

It stands as a testament to the remarkable outcomes that sheer determination, vision, and dedication can yield. Additionally, we must recognise the vital contributions of the government of Finland and NMG, without whom the establishment and acceptance of political polling in our national consciousness would have taken longer. Caesar, I will forever treasure the memory of our rhumba and rock & roll adventures!

Farewell, my dear friend.

- Mr Ogola is a practising pollster