Is Mutahi Ngunyi the Oracle of Kenyan politics?

What you need to know:

  • It is difficult to make predictions many years away because of too much variation in what might happen in the period.
  • Mr Mutahi Ngunyi made predictions years ahead that came to pass. In 2003, he predicted the Narc party will plunge the country in civil strife in the next General Election.
  • One of the weaknesses of Prof Makau Mutua is that he makes too many predictions.

Power struggles in Middle Earth, a fictional realm in the book Lord of the Rings, by South African born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, brought forth the use of a potent device, the palantir − a smooth dark spherical seeing stone that provided foresight into the future. 

The bearer of the stone foresaw the fate of his or her archenemies as well as their own fate. Many kings, chieftains, wizards and warriors employed the use of the palantir in their quest for domination of Middle Earth. However, the stone soon became a source of deception as enemies figured out how to place their own version of the future in the palantir. Lost in the wars, the stone fell out of use. 

Back to our earth, political pundit Prof Makau Mutua claims to have discovered the lost seeing stones of Middle Earth. In his symbolic crystal ball, Prof Mutua issues predictions on political outcomes in Kenya. However, like the contenders of Middle Earth, it seems someone has marred his vision into the crystal ball. Analysis of 27 predictions made by Prof Mutua between 2009 and 2020 shows that he has been accurate 19 percent of the time (see chart above). In the prediction business, a forecaster should have an accuracy rate above 50 percent to be considered better than a flip of a coin.

In contrast Mr Mutahi Ngunyi was right over two-thirds of the time out of 13 predictions made between 2003 and 2020. 

Mr Ngunyi, renowned for the ‘tyranny of numbers’, his prediction on the result of 2013 General Election, is probably the best political forecaster in Kenya. 

What makes him a good forecaster is the period in which he makes his prediction. A binary outcome of an event that is years to come has an almost 50 percent (equal) chance of occurring. As the day of the event draws nearer, more information is gleaned and the probability of one of the outcomes becomes higher. Therefore, it is difficult to make accurate predictions many years away because of too much variation in what might happen in the period. Example, who will be Kenya’s president in 2027.

Nonetheless, Mr Ngunyi made predictions years ahead that came to pass. In 2003, he predicted the Narc party will plunge the country in civil strife in the next election. Four years later, Kenya experienced post-election violence. Similarly, in 2016, he foretold that Mr Raila Odinga will swear himself as the president if he lost the election the following year and it came to pass in 2018.

The veracity of a political pundit can only be ascertained from the predictions they have made over a long time. Brief success in forecasting might be a result of sheer luck. 

Mr Ngunyi has changed tact, over time, and now makes short-term predictions (See chart above) but with less success. Interesting, the ones that took the shortest time were erroneous. They include predicting that former football star McDonald Mariga would clinch the Kibra MP seat (21-day prediction), Deputy President William Ruto would resign by end of 2020 (six- month prediction), and Covid-19 would reach 160,000 cases by June 2020 (two-month prediction). 

Forecasts narrow

One of Prof Mutua’s folies is that he makes too many predictions unlike Mr Ngunyi who focuses on a few. Increasingly, the forecasts have narrowed to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Ruto. At the peak in 2014, one in every four articles written by Prof Mutua covered either the president or his deputy (see  chart below). The predictions made in the articles were the opposite of the  outcomes. In addition, he missed the results of the last two elections (2013 and 2017).

Prior to the 2013 General Election, Prof Mutua predicted that President Kenyatta and Dr Ruto candidature was doomed to fail. Earlier in 2009, Prof Mutua claimed that Dr Ruto’s political career would not amount to much only for him to end up as the deputy president four years later.  He forecasted the same in 2010. Two years later he raised the ante by asserting that Mr Kenyatta and Dr Ruto will not vie for presidency due to the ICC cases, and if they did, they would not win.

He also predicted  a two horse-race between Mr Odinga and Mr Kalonzo Musyoka.

His prophecy was not limited to Jubilee  as he predicted that ODM is headed to the dustbin of history. He also claimed that Ms Martha Karua will be among the top three contenders for the presidential seat. She came in sixth with less than 50,000 votes. 

In the run-up to the last General Election, Prof Mutua did not change tact but continued to forecast that Kenyatta will fall short of re-election. Six months before the election he quipped that “Raila Odinga will win the presidential election by noon.” Mr Kenyatta won. Two years earlier, he peered at the crystal ball and made the pronouncement that Mr Kenyatta will drop Dr Ruto in the 2017 election, which did not happen. He also claimed that the Uhuru-Raila electoral clash would probably lead to civil strife. Skirmishes were reported in the country but not on a large scale like in 2007. 

Away from the two principals, Prof Mutua also missed some core predictions. In 2013, he stated that Ms Kethi Kilonzo, the daughter of former Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo will be picked to replace his father in the seat. His brother Mr Mutula Kilonzo Jr got selected instead. Fast forward to 2020,  Prof Mutua predicted the Majority Leader of Parliament Mr Aden Duale will be spared in the Jubilee party purge. He was ousted as majority leader.

An election and a plebiscite

Two events will drive the prediction market in Kenya for the next two years. These are the upcoming presidential elections in 2022, and the referendum this year to vote for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeking to make constitutional changes in a quest to improve governance and meet the expectation of Kenyans. 

Already several predictions have been put forward. Exiled Kenyan-Canadian lawyer and politician Dr Miguna Miguna made a foray with four predictions. These are: the BBI movement will fail, Mr Kenyatta will cling to power, Mr Odinga and his brother will flee Kenya and the ODM leader will die within six months after the BBI referendum. In addition, Dr Miguna predicted that the president will choose either the Attorney General or a Supreme Court judge as the next Chief Justice.

Economist Dr David Ndii, who usually shies away from making predictions, claimed that Ruto will win the presidential election with 70 per cent  of the votes cast but his intellectual challenger Mr Ngunyi predicts a run-off if the two vie for the presidency. Mr Ngunyi claims that Mr Odinga’s daughter Ms Winnie Odinga will be Prime Minister in Dr Ruto’s government before she becomes president herself.

Time will reveal the true oracle of Kenyan politics if any exists. Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: Impact on the Highly Improbable’, a book on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events, quipped that it does not matter whether a prediction is right or wrong. It is what one does with it that counts.
The writer is a data scientist


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