Kenya reins in hate speech ahead of constitution vote

Fears are rising of a repeat of the inflammatory speech seen ahead of the 2007 elections, which unleashed a wave of deadly ethnic violence. The recent arrests of three members of parliament for hate speech is a positive change.

Noor Khamis/REUTERS
Joshua Kutuny, a member of Kenya's parliament, sat in the dock at High Court in Nairobi on June 16.

It was time, Kenyans heard on the radio in the run-up to the 2007 elections, for the “people of the milk” to “take out the weeds in our midst.” “Mongooses” who had come to “steal our chickens” must be ”run out of the farm” so “our land, our birthright” could be reclaimed.

These obscure references, broadcast on local language stations, were interpreted – accurately – by impressionable rural populations as a call to arms against rival tribes. Unchecked until too late, the propaganda helped launch postelection violence that killed 1,300 people and left Kenya’s reputation for stability in tatters.

Today, as the country prepares for an Aug. 4 vote on a divisive new constitution, there are fears that such inflammatory statements are creeping back. But June 15, three members of parliament were charged with hate speech and incitement to violence. A “national cohesion commission” warned others – including William Ruto, the higher education minister leading opposition to the constitution – that they, too, were being watched.

“Seeing arrests is very positive, when in the past there has been a lot of buck-passing,” says Charley Williams at the British High Commission in Nairobi, which raised alarms on hate speech ahead of the 2007 election.

Ethnic undercurrents to politicking

So, what has changed? Part of the peace deal that ended the postelection violence was an agreement that hate speech would be outlawed. “Before that ... this kind of rhetoric was seen simply as the normal thrust of politics,” said Mwalimu Mati, director of Mars Group Kenya, an anticorruption watchdog group.

Typically, the goal of politicians is to highlight contrasts between their policies and their rivals’. But in Kenya, the aim has been to show the electorate the spoils that will flow to them if they vote for a particular candidate, and the spoil-of-spoils in Kenya is land.

A strong undercurrent of antagonism runs between sections of the country’s 42 tribes over feelings that lands that traditionally “belonged” to certain ethnic groups have been “stolen” by others. Politicians bent on staying in power ruthlessly exploit these feelings. They have done this with speeches that are now legally defined as incitement.

The 2008 National Accord and Reconciliation Act set up state bodies to hunt for hate speech and to present examples as evidence. “Let all know that the law now allows us to act on such people,” Mathew Iteere, Kenya’s top policeman, said when the MPs were arrested.

Strategic Research, contracted by the United Nations to monitor local language radio stations during the 2007 election, has reported no “mongoose” comments.

“But that doesn’t mean that we’re not seeing efforts to target people in different ways,” warns general manager Dan Ahere. “There are plenty of reports referring to discussions of rallies, of press articles about the constitution, which seem aimed at dividing people, if not according to their community then according to emotive issues raised by the referendum.”

Disturbing moves

L. Muthoni Wanyeki, executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, agrees. “There are disturbing moves to entrench stereotypes of different groups ... especially Kenyans who are Muslims, to sow divisiveness that way,” she says. Key issues for constitution opponents are abortion and special Islamic courts, which church groups and the referendum No camp say are in the draft.

A Facebook page purportedly set up on behalf of Mr. Ruto, the higher education minister, has come under scrutiny for inflammatory posts that would easily break the hate speech law. Ruto has denied he controls the site’s content. But he and his team have been accused of pandering to common prejudices, for example, claiming that the draft allows homosexuality.

Ruto was also quick to finger high-level supporters of the draft constitution – namely President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga – as being responsible for perpetrating twin bombings June 13 that killed six at an anti-constitution rally. The allegation was widely dismissed, and the attacks remain under investigation.

Simeon Chepseba, a councilor in Iten, in the Rift Valley, attended a No rally earlier this month. What he heard, he said, was “tantamount to calling on the Kalenjin [tribe] to evict other communities from the Rift Valley.” John Kimosop, from nearby Eldoret – hit worse by the fighting – said he heard politicians advise young people to “be ready for a revolution.”

There is no sense yet that the debate will spark the kind of violence seen after the 2007 election. “Yes, it’s important that people have been arrested,” says Mr. Mati, the anticorruption campaigner. But, he adds, “Until we truly get to the bottom of resolving those problems, real change is a ways off yet.”


Recent arrests of parliamentarians on hate speech charges show that tough rules set down after postelection violence killed 1,300 people in 2007 are being enforced. They face a growing test between now and an August referendum.

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