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Hate speech in Kenya

Philipp Sandner / veJune 26, 2014

Kenyan politicians have become involved in public hate campaigns, even using social networks as a platform to spread propaganda. The atmosphere in the country is reminiscent of 2007 shortly before riots broke out.

An archive picture from 2007 showing a stone-throwing supporter of Raila Odinga
A scene of violence after the Kenyan elections of 2007Image: AFP/Getty Images

They have been around for some time - anonymous leaflets fueling hatred between different ethnic groups in Kenya. "War is what you wanted and war is what you'll get'" is the message for opposition leader Raila Odinga and members of his ethnic group, the Luo. A different leaflet dated 19.06.2014 gives the Luos a deadline of seven days to leave the province of Rift Valley or "we will enter every single house by force." Social networks are full of threats and messages of hatred between members of the East African country's different ethnic groups. The reason for the latest verbal threats against the Luo seems to be a series of attacks on the coastal town of Mpeketoni where 65 people died on 15 and 16 June. Although the Islamist al-Shabab militia claimed responsibility, President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke of an attack by the opposition directed at his own ethnic group, the Kikuyu.

Kenyan human rights activist John Githongo is outraged. The government had proven incompetent in their reaction to the attacks, he said in an interview with DW. It had been unfortunate for Kenyatta to point at the opposition when at the same time the secret service considered al-Shabab to be responsible. This "causes confusion and builds up tension," Githongo said.

A burned out car in Mpeketoni
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack on Mpeketoni which killed at least 49 peopleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Kenyan population is on high alert. They remember all too clearly the civil war-like situation after the controversial 2007 presidential election. At least 1,200 people were killed then and hundreds of thousands were displaced when supporters of former president Kibaki and his contender Odinga turned on each other. That time around lines were also drawn along the borders of ethnicity.

Political provocation

In the end long drawn out negotiations led to a division of power. Concerns that the riots could be repeated were high but the 2013 presidential election remained peaceful to a great extent. Margit Hellwig-Bötte from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin told DW that it had helped that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as representatives from then opposing camps had formed a political alliance. As president and vice president they are now at the top of the state. However, "by no means does this signify reconciliation for people in rural areas", Hellwig-Bötte said. According to her, the conflict was continuously smoldering - especially between "fanatical supporters" from both camps. With his actions Kenyatta was adding fuel to the flames, she added.

The opposition has also been provocative. Tensions had again escalated when in June Odinga called for a national dialogue to address the numerous problems within the country. He accused the government of not adequately protecting the Kenyan people from attacks by the Somali Islamists of al-Shabab. Odinga called for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia and focus on improving security at home.

Margit Hellwig-Boette
Margit Hellwig-Boette says the conflict between ethnic groups is continuously smolderingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Current climate 'favors hate speech'

That was followed by mutual recriminations between government and opposition. Some even tried to use the ethnic conflict card to their own advantage. Kenya's public prosecution office has now summoned for questioning 20 representatives from both sides who are suspected of spreading hate propaganda. For example, Mishi Mboko, an opposition women's representative, is said to have openly called for a revolution. On his Facebook page, member of parliament Moses Kuria accused the Luo ethnic group of causing agitation and indicated he would be prepared to use violence. His page has now been blocked.

Kenya's former Cohesion and Integration Commissioner Millie Lwanga says the current climate favors hate speech because Kenya is struggling with many problems at the same time. According to her, many accuse the government of only dealing with the interests of members of their own ethnic group. "If people find themselves in a difficult situation, they become responsive to propaganda", she said. Lwanga thinks it is important to prosecute those responsible for spreading hate propaganda.

Posters of presidential candidates in Kenya.
Posters of presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga in Nairobi 2013.Image: REUTERS

She herself cannot do much towards finding a solution. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, which was set up in 2008 as an independent institution to prevent a repetition of the post electoral riots, is without a leader. Lwanga's mandate and that of other commissioners ended in September 2013. The search for successors has only just begun.