The unprecedented arrests and detentions in Kenya of seven members of parliament and a senator capped a wave of rising political tensions and violence on the streets. These tensions were inflamed when a member of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee political party appeared to call for the assassination of opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Police arrested Member of Parliament Moses Kuria, along with the others, pending court hearings on charges of incitement to violence. A university student leader was also held. Prosecutors said more specific charges of hate speech and inciting ethnic hatred could follow. The detention of senior politicians is highly unusual – they are usually given bail and rarely see the inside of a jail.
The history of hate speech and incitement to violence in Kenya is a long, widespread and unhappy one. Hate speech and the fanning of ethnic discord was linked with violence after the fraudulent 2007 elections that left nearly 1,500 dead and 600,000 displaced.
That violence led to the failed prosecution by the International Criminal Court of President Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto and broadcaster and political activist Joshua arap Sang. Sang was specifically charged with using Kalenjin-language radio station Kass FM to broadcast incitement of hatred of the Kikuyu and incitement to violence.
Long and unhappy history
Politicians have sought to manipulate community grievances to whip up support in every contested election since the restoration of a multiparty system in Kenya in 1992. The grievances revolve around land, employment and access to the material benefits of political office. Criminal gangs or unemployed youths are often used to intimidate opponents and evict their supporters from areas the politicians claim to be theirs. This manipulation has routinely involved the creation and escalation of ethnic suspicion and hatred.
Former President Daniel arap Moi can be said to have started this when, ahead of the 1992 elections, he perceived a threat to his dominance in the Rift Valley. He and his Kenya African National Union party sought to incite his Kalenjin-speaking support base against Kikuyu and other non-Kalenjin speakers in the area. This led to widespread killings and effective ethnic cleansing. This was repeated in subsequent elections. More than 2,000 people died and 500,000 were displaced in the Rift Valley in deliberately incited violence in the 1990s.
Ethnic stereotyping and stoking suspicions between communities was used extensively during the bitterly fought constitutional referendum in 2005. On one side were supporters of Moi’s successor, President Mwai Kibaki. On the other, those of Raila Odinga and William Ruto.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported that political leaders on both sides had used dehumanising descriptions of opposing political groups and the ethnic communities that supported them.
This was also the case in 2007, according to the commission’s report Still Behaving Badly. The commission said that the election campaign had been marked by hate speech and incitement to violence. The messages were often delivered in vernacular languages to specific communities to generate hatred of other communities.
The vernacular radio stations, which had come into being after the millennium with the relaxation of media controls, played a role in broadcasting hate speech by politicians. Some broadcasters targeted the Luo, Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities. Many of the local radio stations, while ostensibly independent, were closely linked with political leaders. These included Ruto, Kenyatta and Odinga.
The violence that followed the very obviously rigged election results was marked by ethnic conflict incited and manipulated by politicians for their own political ends. It did not represent a well of endemic ethnic hatred.
During the elections many Kikuyu politicians regularly referred to the Luo supporters of Odinga as “beasts from the west”. The Kalenjin supporters of William Ruto (then in alliance with Odinga) called the Kikuyu vermin. They used the expression “the mongoose has stolen the chickens” to refer to alleged Kikuyu seizure of land that the Kalenjin claimed as theirs.
The Kalenjin propagandists also referred to themselves, because of their pastoralist traditions, as the “people of the milk”. They called on people to go out and clear the weeds from the grass, a coded reference to clearing non-Kalenjin from the Rift Valley.
This had echoes of the language used by the murderous Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But it must be stressed that the scale and nature of hate broadcasting in Kenya has never reached the proportions seen in Rwanda.
Social media propagandists
Hate speech in the form of widely disseminated text messages or the use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook was prevalent in the years running up to the 2013 elections. This time around Ruto and Kenyatta were allies targeting their propaganda against Odinga and his supporters.
Some bloggers and tweeters became notorious. The institution set up to monitor hate speech after the 2008 election violence identified the six most notorious. It said they were particularly active in creating suspicion, disseminating inflammatory statements and spreading hate speech by social media. Two of the six accused of spreading hate speech over the web were named and one was formally charged with incitement.
The other four suspects were not named but were identified as a military officer, a teacher, a student and a prison warder.
The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting said that there were hundreds of cases where offensive material had been posted on social media sites to incite hatred or suspicion before or during the 2013 elections.
Impunity breeds hate propaganda
The nature, extent and consequences of inflammatory and hate speech in Kenya are pretty evident. They emerge at times of political tension or conflict and in the run-up to and during election campaigns. Those charged or accused of hate speech are rarely successfully prosecuted. Cases either drag on without result or are dropped – often for political reasons.
Successful propagandists become valuable instruments for political leaders and for their parties. The failure of prosecutions, such as the international case against Joshua arap Sang, gives those who engage in hate speech for political ends a feeling of impunity. The violence that often accompanies political disputes or elections is testimony to the efficacy of hate propaganda as a tool in the political arsenal of Kenyan politicians.
Visiting professor, University of Kent
Keith Somerville does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.