After months of speculation long-serving Nation Media Group Editorial Director Wangethi Mwangi finally stepped down at the end of July. But rather than quell the anxiety his impending departure had created, his exit only kicked off another round of feuding around his successor, former Group Managing Editor Joseph Odindo.
Odindo’s elevation was a triumph of sorts. His promotion had become captive to political interests and considerations, with indications that some NMG directors and the ruling elite were uncomfortable with him ascending to the key seat. That is in itself indicative of a difficult tenure ahead for Odindo.
It is not surprising that senior appointments at NMG have often attracted the interest of the political elite generally and government in particular. It was the case more than two years ago when then Chief Executive, Wilfred Kiboro, was bowing out. But this has been more pronounced in the case of Wangethi’s departure.
It is not surprising that senior appointments at NMG have often attracted the interest of the political elite generally and government in particular
For, while it might have appeared almost automatic that Odindo would ascend to the position of Editorial director once Wangethi stepped out, this possibility begun to look doubtful earlier in the year despite reports that he was the preferred choice of the new CEO, Linus Gitahi.
Mr Gitahi was earlier said to have had a preference for the former Managing Editor of Daily Nation and later CEO of the Standard Group, Tom Mshindi, whose employment and deployment to Uganda he is understood to have influenced with the eventual mission of bringing him back to replace Wangethi.
But long before Wangethi would eventually announce his retirement, which was postponed several times, Mshindi had dropped far behind as the front runner in what would otherwise turn out to be a high stakes succession battle. Insiders have attributed Wangethi’s delayed retirement and the uncertainty over who between the two initial front runners – Mshindi and Odindo – would actually take over to intrigues orchestrated by the Mt Kenya (read the Kikuyu) political elite who were uncomfortable with the idea of the position going to an “outsider” – in this case a Luo (Odindo) or a Kisii (Mshindi).
This harkens to the long-standing perception that Nation Media Group, while principally owned by the Aga Khan, is beholden to or controlled by the Kikuyu who have held most of the senior positions in the past two decades. While he was President, Daniel Moi often berated NMG for being driven by ethnic considerations in “opposing” his administration. He often, rightly or wrongly, pointed out that NMG was controlled by the Kukuyu community he considered opposed to him politically. Whether he was right or not, it is indeed true in the eyes of many media analysts that NMG played a critical role in giving voice to anti-Moi opposition, at some point appearing to have taken on the very role of the Opposition.
It is therefore understandable that most key politicians, mainly the Kalenjin, who served under Moi in the last one and half decade of his tenure blame the then Kiboro-led NMG for their crisis of image both locally and internationally. It is an issue that Moi is said to have regularly raised as a complaint with His Highness the Aga Khan, supposedly blaming the ethnic imbalance for the skewed coverage. Despite the complaint from the Moi administration, the Daily Nation and its sister publication, The Sunday Nation, grew in popularity by the day, because they were taking on what was then perceived to be a dictatorial regime.
Moi’s complaints were dismissed merely as the ranting of a dictator uncomfortable with the manifestations of a free press, and the unpopularity of the Moi state therefore worked only for the NMG’s hard-line stand against the government. The other publications such as The East African Standard and The Kenya Times that did not take to the same editorial line were seen as pandering to the whims of the political leadership and thus paid heavily for that perception by the a slump in circulation figures. It must be noted however that the editorial failings and dalliances with the political elite by The Kenya Times, and to some extent The East African Standard, led to their plummeting circulation.
The hardline stand by the NMG publications would have remained popular among Kenyans, and the accusations by the Moi state of tribal tendencies in their editorial stand would forever have rang in the minds of Kenyans as hollow had the media group maintained such editorial consistency when Mwai Kibaki took power in 2002. Unfortunately, the perception was that NMG backtracked and instead started wagging the tail of the Kibaki state. Indeed NMG’s then CEO, Wilfred Kiboro, in response to a question on why the media house was treating the Kibaki administration with kids’ gloves said that the new government needed time.
While the NMG publications appeared to be kowtowing to the dictates of the new government from 2003 when Kibaki came to power, the really big turning point for the Nation Group was the 2005 referendum on the new constitution and the 2007 General Election. The credibility of the nation publications, and to a good extent the TV and radio stations, suffered seriouslybecause they were perceived by a politically polarized readership to be lapdogs of the Kibaki regime. To this day the daily and Sunday Nation are still smarting from lack of confidence from readers in mainly ODM strongholds of Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley Provinces.
It is therefore understandable that the retirement of Mwangi attracted such immense interest in and out of the media group. One side saw it as the best opportunity to wrench the editorial control of East and Central Africa’s most influential media house from the Mt Kenya group. The other, mainly the Mt Kenya group, saw it as a chance to solidify its control. It was these two competing interests, according to insiders, that saw the possibility of either Odindo or Mshindi taking over as the editorial director diminish suddenly earlier in the year, as reports that the Mt Kenya group had outmaneuvered the two and that it was now real that a complete outsider would be replacing Mwangi. The Mt Kenya group was said to be uncomfortable with Odindo taking over, arguing that he was too close to Raila for comfort. Indeed one of the directors is said to have tried to persuade another senior editor to show interest in the position.
Early July, the Daily Nation had carried a story in which it quoted Lands Minister James Orengo as having accused former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of betrayal. The earlier version of the story which was used in the Coast and Western editions had the headline, “Annan Betrayed Us, says Orengo”, but this later changed to “Annan Ambushed Us”, in the final edition distributed in Nairobi. Insiders said the headline changed after Orengo walked into the newsroom at 10pm and, together with Odindo, opened the template and changed the headline on Friday, July 10. That was flagged as evidence of Odindo’s partisanship.
Strangely, it is alleged that a PNU politician sent an sms to Group CEO Linus Gitahi, mocking him that NMG had sunk so low that ODM was now editing their stories in the newsroom. The sms seemed to suggest that Odindo had alerted Orengo of the story and thus allowed him to walk into the newsroom and edit it the same night it even went to the streets. The CEO commissioned an internal inquiry, which later cleared Odindo and reporter Kenneth Ogosia, also suspected of having informed Orengo, on the grounds that Orengo could have seen the story on the internet as that day’s paper had been put on the web unusually early. But one of the results of the inquiry was that the management tightened procedures and now visitors like Orengo have to go to the office of the CEO or be cleared in advance of their arrival or visit.
But just when reports were circulating that Odindo’s rise had been blocked by vested ethnic interests, it soon emerged in early July that Odindo, Mshindi and a third person, had been interviewed for the position of editorial director, Mshindi and a lady, whose identity was kept secret but believed to have been Africa Online founder Amolo Ng’weno, were also interviewed for the position of managing director of the Nation Newspapers. Mutuma Mathiu, whose name had also been floated last year as a possible successor to Wangethi, was not interviewed for the position. Later in the month, His Highness the Aga Khan visited Kenya in what his aides said was to attend the meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Aga Khan University but also paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
The PM’s aides who attended the meeting told ET on condition of anonymity that the PM took the opportunity to lay his complaints about the Nation before the Aga Khan. The PM told the Aga Khan that “the Nation can be good as a force for national stability when it means to, but that it can also be a divisive force”. He then told the Aga Khan that Kenyans hoped he would make changes at the group that would enable it to foster national rather than sectarian interests.
A few days after the meeting, the NMG CEO announced that Mwangi would be taking his much awaited retirement and that Mr Odindo would be taking over as the Group Editorial Director. Tom Mshindi was appointed the managing director of the most profitable arm –newspapers. Whether the meeting between the PM and the Aga Khan had any bearing on the appointments and thus Odindo’s sudden change of fortune is a matter only for speculation.
What is clear, however, is that soon after his appointment, Odindo found himself fighting the most unlikely internal wars, at the same time as ODM and Raila complained that the Nation had become worse sine the visit by the Aga Khan. Some insiders say Odindo’s troubles emanate from simple turf wars with the Managing Editor of the Daily Nation, Mutuma Mathiu, a very strong personality, who appears to be fighting hard to have his way. The fight has however threatened to take the usual PNU/ODM or even the Kikuyu/Luo dimension.
It exploded with the coverage of the burning issue of President Kibaki’s re-appointment of Justice Ringera as the Director of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, a move that many agreed was unprocedural. In a bid to fight back in defense of Ringera, Justice Minister Mutual Kilonzo released names of senior government officials alleged to have been or being investigated by Ringera. Sources in the office of the Prime Minister and ODM leader Raila Odinga told ET that most of the names were of key ODM members of parliament. The Nation splashed the story without even bothering to counter check the facts, as most of the cases tabled by the minister had either been settled in court or dropped by KACC.
Soon after, laments the office of the PM, the Speaker ruled that Parliament had the mandate to debate and probe the re-appointment of Ringera by President Kibaki. The story was prominently carried in all other media houses apart from the Daily Nation, which completely ignored it. The news desk says it submitted the story to the subs desk, but a source at the subs desk told ET in defense that the story was never filed by the reporters in Parliament, basically suggesting that it was due to a breakdown in communication between the news desk and the subs desk.
Nonetheless, a few days later as Parliament prepared to nullify Ringera’s appointment, there were reports that Mt Kenya MPs had met their Rift Valley colleagues and struck a Mau-for-Ringera deal (which was either a hoax or flopped) in which the Mt Kenya MPs agreed to support their Rift Valley colleagues in watering down the Mau report due to which the settlers in Mau forest would be evicted in return for their support on the Ringera issue in parliament. “All the other media houses splashed the story but the Daily Nation completely ignored it,” said the source in the PM’s office.
In a bid to salvage the group’s credibility, Odindo wrote a memo to the Daily Nation’s acting Chief Sub Editor, Ng’ang’a Mbugua, and copied to the Managing Editor, Mutuma Mathiu, on their glaring failure to publish the two stories, pointing out that their action had “undermined the credibility of the newspaper among its political readers.” Mutuma hit the roof, choosing to respond to the memo via his Sunday column on September 20 in which he lamented the tribal angle the proceedings had taken. On the Mau-for-Ringera deal, Mutuma basically argued that they had received the story, assessed it and found that it was weak. It was however his decision to respond to the matter through his column, basically describing an unnamed Joseph as a tribalist towards the end of the column, that raised eyebrows.
But the Prime Minister’s handlers still argue that the Daily Nation under Mutuma did not stop there. For, soon after the Ringera/Mau debacle, reports from the US indicated that Raila Odinga was among top world leaders who had been invited to a meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “Again, all the other media houses carried the story apart from the Daily Nation,” said the source. But soon after, the Daily Nation published a story suggesting that the PM had in fact been snubbed by the US President and the alleged meeting between the two leaders would not be taking place.
But when the disputed meeting later took place on September 23, first over lunch and then later privately in the evening, the story and pictures of the meetings were distributed to all Kenyan media houses, including the Nation. “I personally took the story and the pictures to the Daily Nation and other media houses. The other media houses carried it appropriately, some giving it front page treatment, but Daily Nation chose to give a strange treatment,” said the source. The Daily Nation, argues the office of the PM, opted to use the story as a small filler with the headline, “Rare meeting”, and the picture which it described merely as photo session.
Who is telling the truth?