Slapping the President and other gaffes that blind us to real issues

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and his deputy William Ruto.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and his deputy William Ruto.

Photo credit: File | PSCU

There was a telling bloomer at Nairobi’s Treasury Building when Finance Permanent Secretary Joseph Kinyua invited Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta to hand over the Finance docket to his successor.

“May I invite Honourable Uhuru to hand over to Honourable Kenyatta,” Mr Kinyua intoned. Mr Kenyatta, who sat next to his successor, Mr Robinson Njeru Githae, broke into loud laughter. Of course Mr Kinyua was inviting Mr Kenyatta to hand over to Mr Githae.

But then, it didn’t immediately hit Mr Kinyua that he had made a mistake. Perhaps, he hadn’t. It was only after he saw the curious looks from all and sundry in the room, and after a whisper from some mandarin next to him, that he recollected his thoughts....

That was how a journalist reported the story (“Kinyua’s gaffe at Uhuru handover”—Daily Nation, February 3, 2012). The gaffe, not the handover, was made to be the story.

Made innocently

Gaffes are slips of the tongue, blunders, mistakes, tactless remarks or indiscretions. They are made innocently, by accident or on purpose. When reporters concentrate on them, it can lead to distraction from the real issues.

A good example is the story of Pastor Jane Wairimu. She referred to Kenya Kwanza as “Kenya Kwisha” while praying for Deputy President William Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua on June 10 at Nyayo National Stadium, where hundreds of women met to sign a charter with the coalition. The media were so eager to report the gaffe they forgot the real story: The agreement.

There are cases where focusing on a gaffe is justified because it’s the news. For example, when President Donald Trump referred to African nations as “shithole countries”. It’s also not always in the hands of the journalist whether a gaffe takes a life of its own.

Statement was weaponised

Sometimes, politicians play a big part in it. For example, when Raila Odinga outlined his plans for mitumba (second-hand clothes) traders at his manifesto launch, he said: “Our people are only wearing clothes coming from outside the country which have been worn by people who are dead” (“Raila: ‘Mitumba’ traders will sell locally made clothes”—Daily Nation, June 7, 2022). That statement was weaponised by his opponents to suggest that he was disrespectful to mitumba wearers and that he would ban the trade if elected.

The latest and most controversial gaffe is, of course, Dr Ruto’s remark on Friday in connection with the 2017 repeat presidential election. Addressing Kikuyu elders at his official residence in Karen, he said: “I looked at him and told him, ‘You!’ It’s only that I was being respectful, I would have slapped him. How could we just quit?” The Sunday Nation ran the story on page 4. It’s balanced and backed by evidence. And the headline is apt: “Ruto: I pushed Uhuru to run in 2017 repeat polls.”

One may, however, question the accuracy of the interpretation in the opening paragraph that the discussion between the President and the DP “almost turned into a physical confrontation”. A moment of reflection on the thought of slapping the President is called for here. This was not a replay of Damien Tarel slapping French President Emmanuel Macron or Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. This was a discussion between two people who have just had their election victory nullified by the Supreme Court.

The front-page promo for the story is another issue. The headline, “Day I almost slapped Uhuru”, is sensational. It makes the slap that never was the story.

The DP spoke in Kiswahili. “I felt/wanted to slap/pinch someone” is a common idiom in Kikuyu, used to express not the intention of injuring someone but the feeling that they are a disappointment or let-down. The “I-almost-slapped-the-President”, not the persuasion to stop Uhuru from giving up the presidency, has been made the story. Ruto’s rivals have weaponised the gaffe, saying he is unfit to be president due to his “temperament”.

There is no evidence that gaffes influence voters. Regardless, the presidential campaign has become very negative with each side focusing on the opponent’s gaffes rather than what they have to offer Kenyans. Gaffes are pseudo-controversies. We must not focus on them to the exclusion of the real issues.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264