Hate speech, ethnic tension ahead of Kenya's 2017 elections

Jul 29 2016

(Peter Alingo)

As Kenya prepares for elections next year, the political die seems already cast. With the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) facing off against the ruling Jubilee Coalition, the political temperature is rising.

Political diehards from both CORD and Jubilee have been mobilising and inciting their followers in recent months.

Ethnic tensions, in particular, are reaching dangerous levels given the persistent use of hate speech from both sides. Kenya can ill afford another spell of post-election violence, but who will contain the ethno-political ‘dogs of war’ ahead of next year’s polls?

Electoral violence is not a new phenomenon in Kenya’s political history[PDF]. Before multi-party politics were reintroduced in 1991, political hardliners from the then ruling party, the Kenya African National Union, warned that such a move would undermine national unity, balkanise tribes and plunge the country into violence. Sure enough, the elections that followed in 1992 and 1997 were plagued with politically-motivated ethnic clashes, in which scores of people were killed and displaced and property destroyed.

Unmoved by history, Kenya once more found itself caught in a conundrum of politically motivated ethnic tension[PDF] and hate speech ahead of the 2007 polls. The outcome was widespread violence that left an estimated 1 300 people killed, thousands injured and around 600 000 people displaced.

This was the worst spate of electoral-related violence in Kenya’s political history[PDF] and it was only after intervention from the international community[PDF] that peace and normalcy could return, following a politically-mediated peace settlement. For the first time in Kenya’s history, those alleged to have orchestrated the violence were indicted at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC)[PDF] for crimes against humanity, among others.

Image - Kenya ethnic distribution map

Image – Kenya ethnic distribution map

With just over a year to go before Kenya’s next polls, the current political climate can be likened to that which preceded the electoral violence in 2007/8. Given that the Kenyan ICC cases had subsequently collapsed, actors from both CORD and Jubilee seem to be promoting ethnic hatred and using violence as political tools, with a measure of perceived impunity.

A number of factors have led to this worrying scenario. First is the outcome of the 2013 presidential elections, which have left permanent scars of division and hatred between CORD and Jubilee factions.

CORD believes that its victory was stolen in 2013, and continues to challenge the legitimacy of the Jubilee government. Jubilee, conversely, maintains that it won the elections fair and square and that CORD is simply out to settle political scores in a bid to remain relevant. With time, the divide between the two political sides has not only become more extreme, but has also taken on an ethnic dimension. The result has been an environment of continuous political warmongering and ethnic hostility.

Second are the dynamics around the ICC cases involving President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto. CORD and its ethnic supporters were perceived as pro-ICC, [PDF] while Jubilee and its ethnic supporters were perceived as being against the court. This was expressed as support for accountability and criminal justice on the one hand; and the protection of the presidency and national sovereignty on the other. When the ICC cases collapsed, political and ethnic tensions subsequently seemed to escalate.

CORD was seen to believe that the ICC would be the only reliable mechanism to ultimately scuttle Kenyatta and Jubilee’s long-term political reign. Jubilee therefore had political incentive to rubbish the ICC as a neo-colonist, anti-African political platform. This fuelled a fierce political and ethnic debate. The collapse of the ICC trials triggered the perception that those in control of state power could escape justice for crimes against humanity with impunity.

Third is the current political stalemate between CORD and Jubilee over the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). CORD argues that the IEBC is no longer fit to conduct Kenya’s next polls in 2017, and has demanded that the body be disbanded. Jubilee has supported the IEBC, arguing that it could only be disbanded through due process. CORD has been conducting regular countrywide demonstrations against the IEBC, which the Jubilee government has condemned and responded to brutally – so far leaving four people dead and scores injured.

In an attempt to contain the deteriorating political and ethnic animosity, eight legislators (evenly drawn from CORD and Jubilee) and a university student leader were arraigned in court on charges of incitement to political and ethnic violence. The legislators were released on bail pending trial, and a few days later made rather unpersuasive pledges against hate speech. Political and ethnic contempt and hate speech seem to continue unabated in the country.

The charges against politicians, however, don’t even begin to scratch the surface of a deep-rooted systemic problem. Social media remains a haven for those seeking to propagate ethno-political hate speech, with no action taken against the perpetrators. This is because existing legislation is weak and implementation ineffective.

Better legislation and stronger institutions will be needed to ensure individual and collective responsibility for attempts to incite hatred and violence. Efforts to encourage Kenyans to embrace political tolerance and ethnic diversity must also be ramped up if the country is to prevent electoral violence from recurring in 2017.

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* The author Peter Alingo is Office Director and Senior Researcher at the Governance, Crime and Justice Division, of Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi. First published on ISS Africa

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