/ 19 February 2008

SMSs used as a tool of hate in Kenya

When Joyce Mandela’s cellphone beeped to signal she had a SMS, the 27-year old Kenyan expected a note from a friend. Instead, she found a message of hate.

”If your neighbour is a Kikuyu, just kick him or her out of that house. No one is going to ask you anything,” the SMS read.

”You don’t know who is sending them, you don’t know how they got your number,” said Mandela, leaning against a lush fruit tree surrounded by squalid tents in this refugee camp next to one of the capital’s sprawling slums.

Since December’s disputed elections, ethnic clashes involving the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin tribes — among others — have rocked Kenya, claiming about 1 000 lives and displacing another 300 000 people.

Hacked bodies, razed homes and burnt-down shops lined ash-coated streets after the violence hit Mathare slum, forcing hundreds to flee to neighbouring camps.

In the capital’s mazelike shantytowns, tribal battles have largely pitted the Kikuyus, who are mainly supporters of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, against the Luos and Luhyas, supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

”I deleted the messages because I don’t want to get into politics,” said Mandela, who has spent six weeks in Mathare camp. Behind her, lines of laundry strung under mango trees weave past mattresses, sheets and pillows stacked on the dirt ground and piled on wooden dressers.

A Luhya, Mandela has received four similar SMSs since the December 27 presidential poll.

”I believe some politicians are responsible for the messages,” she said.

Willis Kuria (28) agreed. He received a SMS — which he was instructed to send to five others — telling him to join thousands of other Kenyans in a million-man opposition march in Nairobi protesting the official election result.

Such public rallies were banned at the time.

”I think politicians are using the people to send the messages,” said Kuria, a Kikuyu, walking past children playing soccer amid maize sacks and jugs of water.

”I saw it as incitement. It would not make sense to march. We would find police and be beaten,” he said.

”My job was just to vote.”

Last month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Kenyan opposition officials of inciting inter-ethnic violence in the western

province of the Rift Valley — allegations rejected by Odinga’s party, the Orange Democratic Movement.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights meanwhile charged that SMSs were among the means used to encourage Kenyans to participate in tribal attacks, along with inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on radio stations and at party rallies, leaflets and

even bribes.

The Kenyan government recently said it was working with leading mobile operators to monitor voice and text messages on cellphones — and potentially catch offenders.

Many in Mathare Chief Camp, huddled in tents with wool blankets, said they have been too afraid to pass on any of the SMSs.

Judy Wombui (29) a Kikuyu whose tribe largely supported Kibaki, received a SMS that read: ”Vote for Raila if you want to be on the

safe side.”

”I feared that if I sent the message to someone else, it could be to the wrong person, someone who could come attack me,” she said, as smoke wafted from nearby cooking pots as kaleidoscopic-dressed women washed clothes and cared for infants.

”I read the messages, kept them for a while to show them to my friends. We compared messages and found out that they were nearly the same,” she said.

Wombui also received a flyer that warned her to leave Mathare slum by a certain date. She was forced to flee at one point with her two children, sister and brother.

Camp residents say that most of their neighbours and friends received nearly identical hate messages directly before and after the election, primarily in support of the opposition.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan is leading negotiations Kibaki and rival Odinga to try to end the bloodshed.

As the sun beat down on Wombui, she said that though she and her friends paid no heed to the SMSs, it is clear that others in the slum did.

”Those who participated in the violence listened to the text messages,” Wombui said.

”You can’t do something like this without being told to do it.” ‒ Sapa-AFP