/ 2 July 2010

Kenyan govt clamps down on hate speech

Kenyan Govt Clamps Down On Hate Speech

Kenyans are no strangers to ethnic mobilisation — in almost every post-independence election, politicians have played on the prejudices of the country’s 42 ethnic groups to build a support base.

In 1992 MP William Ole Ntimama backed the forced removal of Kikuyu from what he claimed was Maasai land, infamously calling for the Kikuyu in the Rift Valley to “lie low like envelopes”.

During the 2007 election several politicians urged their respective ethnic groups to remove “stains” from their areas and “shake off the soil” of outsiders. More than 1 000 died in the subsequent violence.

So citizens were not shocked by inflammatory statements by at least three MPs ahead of a contentious referendum on a new constitution scheduled for August 4. What is surprising, however, is that the government clamped down before things got out of hand.

Two weeks ago police arrested MPs Fred Kapondi and Joshua Kutuny as well as Assistant Roads Minister Wilfred Machage on hate speech charges after they warned of bloodshed, evictions and religious warfare if the constitution was passed.

Machage alleged that the Maasai would reclaim land in Nairobi taken from them by colonialists, whereas Kutuny is accused of distributing leaflets urging certain ethnic groups to leave Western Kenya. “To all non-Pokots, Sengwer and Sabaot, vacate our land by August before the Constitution,” the leaflets said.

Five days later three grenades exploded at a political rally in Nairobi, killing six and leaving more than 100 injured, leading some observers to predict a repeat of the violence surrounding the 2007 poll.

President Mwai Kibaki reacted by ordering tough action against anyone stoking violence and Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) summoned at least 20 people to provide evidence of alleged hate speech that would be forwarded to the police.

The authorities also announced that they were tracking the origins of emails intended to incite violence.

“It really is a positive departure,” said Hassan Omar Hassan of the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission. “For a long time politicians have brandished their ethnic groups to instil fear, saying: ‘If you try to arrest me, my tribe will respond’.

“For the government to gain the courage and stamp on hate speech is very positive.”

The NCIC’s Mzalendo Kibunjia called for “hate-mongers to pave the way for Kenyans of goodwill”, adding: “Stopping hate speech is a civic duty of all Kenyans.”

But if consensus is building among policymakers, the constitutional referendum threatens to tear it apart.

Kenyans have waited 20 years for a constitution that reins in the excessive powers of the executive. But the “no” campaign has focused on three specific areas: land ownership, legalising abortion in certain cases and the recognition of the kadi courts, which deal with Muslim domestic disputes according to sharia law.

The “no” camp has won the support of the Catholic and powerful evangelical churches in regard to abortion and the courts, but the land issue could prove the most contentious.

Much of the 2008 post-election violence was sparked by land tensions between rival ethnic groups. Some ethnic leaders and MPs, especially in the Rift Valley, are exploiting proposals to set up a land commission to scare people into voting no.

After independence, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, allowed his Kikuyu group to snap up land formerly held by other groups, later taken by white settlers, in and around the Rift Valley.

Almost 50 years later Kenyatta’s land grab is still a contentious issue.

“The NCIC’s moves might be enough for the politicians to restrain themselves,” said Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group Kenya, an anti-corruption watchdog. “But the sentiments they’re expressing may have a worrying resonance in their communities. There are a lot of underlying prejudices in Kenyan society that need to be addressed.”