Kenya gets tough on hate speech ahead of polls

Kenya's assistant minister for water, Fedinard Waititu, faces charges of incitement to violence after a speech this week. Kenya is trying to avoid a repeat of the 2007 election violence.

A Kenyan assistant minister yesterday became the most recent politician to face charges of incitement to violence, as the East African country gets tough on incitement and hate speech ahead of general elections this coming March.

The last major elections in Kenya turned bloody: Hate speeches were widely viewed as contributing to the post election violence. The troubles began in December 2007 after President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, was declared the winner and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, rejected the results as rigged. By the time the violence ended two months later, an estimated 1,300 people had died and more than 600,000 were displaced.

To avoid a repeat of election violence, Kenyan officials are clamping down on speeches that inflame ethnic animosities. Attorney General Githu Muigai told Parliament that the assistant minister's case will serve as an example of the government's resolve.

“The government wants to send a strong message that nobody, no matter how high or low, will escape the full force of the law on this matter of hate speech," said Mr. Muigai, in a televised speech Wednesday. "This is case is good example, it will send clear warning to the people inciting communities against each other."

Fedinard Waititu, the assistant minister for water, appeared in court yesterday under tight security after dodging police for days until a high court judge ordered him to surrender. Mr. Waititu has apologized for his words, but has denied the charges. The case will come for hearing in November.

A stolen chicken

Earlier this week, while visiting Kayole estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, Waititu had urged the area residents to flush out members of the Maasai community, whose men are employed as night watchmen, for killing a street boy who had stolen a chicken.

“We are saying we do not want to see members of the Maasai in Kayole from today,” Waititu told the charged crowd. “They must leave … anybody can be employed as a watchman.”

Riots sparked off soon after. 

Presenting the case in court, state counsel Lillian Obuo told the court yesterday that “[Waititu's] utterance caused the crowd to hunt for the Maasai and in the process, Lucas Mitibon and Nyagusi Ole Sindoe were attacked, injured, and property destroyed. Two people were also killed in the process … as a result of the utterances."

Waititu's case is buzzing in Kenyan social media. 

“At this time as we head to elections, anyone inciting Kenyans against each other should not receive any leniency! I hope the same law that gave him some reprieve will lock him in soon. For your information, I voted for him and am quite disappointed,” posted Stephen Kisevu Dedan on Facebook on Tuesday.

“Ferdinard Waititu should not escape prosecution for incitement and murder by calling for all Maasai to leave Kayole ... one person already dead,” tweeted Brian Mung’ei on Monday.

For his part, Waititu has issued an apology: "It was a slip of the tongue. I apologize to the Maasai. I meant those who are crooked and those are not from Kenya." 

Kareke Mbiuki, an assistant Minister for Agriculture coming to the defense of Waititu urged the Maasai to forgive him. 

"Anybody who issues an apology should be forgiven. Waititu is beseeching the Maasai and Kenyans to forgive him. They should forgive him, forget the utterance and then we live in peace as Kenyans," said Mr. Mbiuki. 

Lessons learned?

But analysts say if such speeches are not checked, there could be a repeat of the 2007-2008 post election violence. 

“With such utterances, we get very concerned. Cohesion and integration efforts are yet to be effective at the ground and such utterances push the communities further apart. We urge strong action to be taken against those who are trying to incite and peddle hate speech,” says Wainaina Ndung’u, the executive director of the International Center for Policy and Conflict, an independent research and advocacy organization based in Nairobi.

“It appears that our politicians did not learn anything from that violence. This is because they still kept their jobs, salaries, and their security," he adds.

On Sept. 17, Environment Minister Chirau Makwere was cleared of hate speech charges after he made a public apology to Kenyans. And on Sept. 13, Dhado Godana, an assistant minister for livestock, was charged with incitement and fired for utterances tied to unrest that left 110 people dead in clashes between the Orma and Pokomo tribes.

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