Watch What You Say, It's An Election Year
“When Ibrahim disobeyed God, he was ordered to be circumcised,; you General of Migingo the knife is being sharpened”…”You Philistine from the lake of the uncircumcised, you are the one who spied and they said that it had been stolen”… “If you knew that Hague is being pushed to you by an uncircumcised man who wants you to be hanged so that you leave your wife for him to enjoy…while he sees you in trouble”…”Here it is better to die…because things of the circumcised person are not governed by an uncircumcised person.”
These statements were recently used as evidence to charge three Kikuyu musicians with hate speech, and incitement to violence, ethnic contempt and racial contempt. Some have welcomed these charges as an attempt to halt the further ethnic polarization of the country with an election looming. Others, for instance The Kikuyu Council of Elders, have pronounced the charges to be an attack on the Kikuyu community.
The impact of hate speech and incitement is, for example, examined in the case of the Rwanda genocide of 1994. One of the more famous examples here is that of the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTML) which was universally indicted for inciting people to “kill the Tutsis, Inyenze (cockroaches)”. Scott Straus, a journalist who was in Rwanda in 1994 and proceeded to do a PhD looking at the causes of the genocide, published a book where he found that the vast majority of the killers he interviewed during his research talked about pressure from authorities (including politicians) or from the local group as the most important reason they participated. Only about 10% said the radio played an important role but the 10% who cite the radio were the same group who were the leaders, the most aggressive in killing and in recruiting others. It gives one pause to think: is Kenya also not also a country where the population blindly follows its (ethnic) leadership?
Kenya is just emerging from a near-death experience following the 2007 post-election conflict: will we not be playing with fire by not attending properly to this issue? Interestingly, some keen observers noted that there was a “remarkable reduction” of hate speech in the media during these elections than during the 2005 constitutional referendum. They attributed this to the greater scrutiny that occurred during the 2007 elections which meant that politicians were on their guard.
However, what is notable is the fact that the 2007 elections showed a marked rise in the shrill stridency and bilious character of political messaging. Take the example of former minister of information Mutahi Kagwe who at a rally in his Mukurweini constituency on 13 October 2007 alleged that "We are told that people will not be paying rent [if ODM win the election]. Even your milk which is now selling at 17 shillings will be declared free. Since independence we have never had such a dangerous man [as opposition leader Raila Odinga] who wants to destroy our government.” In another speech, Kagwe compared Odinga to Idi Amin and Hitler, warning his audience that Odinga will start "suppressing us" like those dictators if he wins.
This trend of the increasing vilification of the political competition is picked by Kenyan scholar Mbugua wa-Mungai notes in an article published in the book, Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transitions: The Kenya 2007 General Elections. He reviews short text messages from the 2002 and 2007 election campaigns and notes:
First, in the 2002 texts, which were directed at KANU-the Rainbow opposition’s key target-there was very little attempt at vilifying any of its members on the basis of their ethnicity. In contrast, a significant number of the 2007/08 texts are formulated upon ethnic labels, in this case anti-Gikuyu and anti-Luo stereotypes….Second, and perhaps even more important, where much wit went into the 2002 sms, those from 2007 were nearly always direct insults directed at individuals.
These are critical observations: at the dawn of this millennium we had witnessed an almost complete decontamination in political messaging. In the early 1990’s Kenya had seen the use of hate messaging and incitement as part of the resistance by the state and its supporters to fully liberalize Kenyan politics. At that point, former Nakuru District KANU chairman Wilson Leitich was famous for having ordered KANU youth wingers to chop off the fingers of anyone seen flashing the opposition FORD’s two-finger salute. And minister William Ole Ntimama referred to the Kikuyu as “ugly, with brown feet and jigger-infested feet” who could not be trusted with leadership.
So, from the lows of the 1990s, things had come improved in the early 2000s before the political environment deteriorated again and became a lot more radioactive. Throughout however, we have also witnessed a total lack of political will to deal decisively with hate speech. Following the 2005 referendum, an attempt by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights to prosecute members of parliament who had used hate speech was halted when the Attorney General took over and terminated the case. In 2007, an attempt to introduce legislation to criminalize hate speech was rejected by parliament on grounds that it would curtail the freedom of expression. It was only after the country exploded with violence in the aftermath of the electoral debacle in 2007 that the government issued a nationwide text message on 3 January 2008 advising "that the sending of hate messages inciting violence is an offence that could result in prosecution".
Despite the National Cohesion and Integration Act, enacted in December 2008, providing the legal basis to charge those engaging in hate speech, there has yet to be a successful prosecution. The first failed attempt was made was following the 2010 referendum against politicians Wilfred Machage, Fred Kapondi, Joshua Kutuny and Christine Nyagitha. Another attempt reportedly still being considered is against cabinet minister Ali Chirau Makwere. Now the three musicians are in court. While we await the legal cavalry to come to our aid in curbing hate speech, incitement to violence and ethnic and racial hatred, let’s be careful about what we say. This election year, it could make all the difference.
Mugambi Kiai is the Kenya Program Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of OSIEA.