Media enables politics of ethnic division and hate to take root

In at least three elections, the campaign theme largely centred on creating a hate figure as a tool for mobilisation

In Summary

• Dehumanising certain communities and leaders, as a political doctrine, hides in plain sight.

• Prime time news carries  references to “mganga”, “watu wa kung’oa reli”, “the stock exchange is not a fish market”, “lords of poverty” or “they have no stake in the economy." 

Deputy President William Ruto and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
FACE-OFF: Deputy President William Ruto and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Image: FILE

At least twice recently, ODM boss Raila Odinga has on TV described the emerging philosophy of dividing  people into classes and creating an “us versus them” siege mentality as “takataka” (rubbish).

On each occasion, the former Prime Minister has eloquently explained the humble beginnings of his own family, as well as those of former Presidents Daniel Moi and Jomo Kenyatta.

Again he added at the end of his narration that attempting to paint their families as dynasties is “takataka”.

In a shocking but not surprising twist, the other side of the political divide has harped on this line and twisted it to become “Raila called hustlers takataka!” As of last week, as political temperatures rose considerably, it had become gospel truth to the so-called hustlers that Raila had called them rubbish.

What was cause for concern was that all the mainstream media houses that had carried original footage of Raila’s words were the same ones that carried the twisted version. This was without any fact-check or add in editor's brackets that this is not what Raila said.

It also surprises me that ODM has not made any attempt to push back on this lie, even though it is gaining traction and will surely soon become a campaign issue.

There is something else Raila said recently at the burial of Musalia Mudavadi’s mother that should  have received greater media mention.

Alluding to how the Holocaust was conceived, Raila pointed out that Adolf Hitler’s campaign of misinformation and propaganda had been anchored in the perceived superiority of certain ethnicities, the alleged impurity of others and the dangerous 'us versus them' mentality.

The ODM chief warned that the country is experiencing a Hitler-type campaign of division into classes and ethnicities, which could plunge the country into tragedy if not checked.

What he didn’t mention was the role in this gross inaccuracy played by those in the media who disseminate information/misinformation.

However, we know that agents of division achieve a level of believability when mainstream media carries their words verbatim, complete with the misinformation therein.

In the Kenyan context, the dehumanisation of certain communities, and leaders, as a political doctrine, hides in plain sight. Prime time news casually carries references to “mganga”, “watu wa kung’oa reli”, “the stock exchange is not a fish market”, “lords of poverty” or “they have no stake in the economy."

To the ordinary Kenyan going about his business in a village somewhere, there may not be much in the phrases. But in the newsroom, the editors know exactly what is going on. So when they let the rhetoric run, they must bear a level of responsibility for what follows.

How are we supposed to explain to our children as we watch the news who the “mganga” constantly mentioned in news clips is? How did it become okay for a top leader to be caricatured as “mganga” on mainstream news without media houses noticing that in representative democracy, this dehumanisation doesn’t just target the leader but his followers too?

In at least three elections, the campaigns have largely centred on creating a hate-figure as a tool for mobilisation.

In 2013, the Mau Forest Complex moved from being a conservation issue to a huge political matter, around which an ethnic siege mentality was built. It was a simple enough strategy: Raila was the enemy of the people who lived in the Mau, and their entire community. It was time to go to the ballot and teach him a lesson! And teach him they did!

However, once the votes had been tallied and the 'punishment' supposedly delivered, the media also put Mau on the back burner, even though threats to biodiversity constitute a blot on our own sustainable existence, and the Mau water tower should really be a daily conversation.

This pattern continued in 2017, with the hate figure this time presented as an “mganga” who didn’t worship any known god, and who would “turn some communities into slaves and make them wear shorts!”

If you think this sort of thing has ended, three things in the last two or so weeks should disabuse you of that notion.

The first two are from mainstream TV talk shows. The first involved two panelists, LSK president Nelson Havi and ODM secretary general Edwin Sifuna.

One of the panelists, insisted on “addressing Raila directly” and freely went on doing so. But as soon as the other panelist mentioned former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, the show host intervened and stated that Sonko wasn’t there to defend himself.

ODM chairman John Mbadi tweeted in to ask if Raila had been there to defend himself the whole time he had been mentioned.

The second talk show happened about a week later, this time involving Jubilee vice chairman David Murathe, Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura and Sifuna. At some point, Senator Mwaura casually said, “ODM is known for violence, they even conducted violence in Thika in 1992."

I looked at the show host, expecting that this obvious lie would be immediately pointed out, because there certainly was no ODM in 1992, and in any case, no major incident happened in Thika that year. Shock on me, it was allowed to pass!

The third incident happened when a group of Mt Kenya legislators wrote an open letter to the President, saying it was impossible to market his handshake partner, Raila Odinga, in their land.

Trouble is, neither the President nor the former PM had asked them to do that. But it wasn’t hard for the discerning eye to read the underlying gimmick — make Raila the central focus of the campaign and create a hate figure one more time.

The just-concluded US election and the ill-fated attempt to overturn the will of the people by Donald Trump must have shown us just how close to the precipice a country can get when misinformation becomes a daily staple.

Media outlets that had enthusiastically enabled Trump’s campaign of lies realised rather late that the dragon they had been feeding could plunge their country into chaos. Luckily for them, federal and state institutions remained strong enough to overcome the challenge, albeit with a country divided moving forward.

We, on the other hand, do not have this luxury. There is currently no institution in Kenya with the overall confidence of the entire population that we can turn to should politicians send us closer to the edge. This is why the media has a duty to exercise their freedom with utmost responsibility.

If it becomes a peddler of false narratives and lies in an impending delicate transition, it will help us harvest what we have collectively sown.

 Ajuok comments on politics