Eschew inflammatory rhetoric to prevent intolerance and violence

Leon Mugesera

Rwandan fugitive Leon Mugesera (R) is handcuffed on the tarmac as he arrives at Kigali International Airport late on January 24, 2012. 

Photo credit: File

The Bible, in Proverbs 12:18, says: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Hate speech can be defined as use of abusive, threatening or derogatory language or behaviour, or display of written or published material with intent to foment animosity against a group by reference to race, nationality, colour or ethnicity as provided for in the Constitution.

The laws on hate speech in Kenya relate to freedom of expression. Article 33 (2) (d) of the Constitution states that the right does not extend to the advocacy of hatred that “constitutes ethnic incitement, the vilification of others or incitement to cause harm; or is based on any ground of discrimination specified or contemplated in Article 27 (4), encompassing race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth”.

Prevalence of hate speech often rises in the period leading up to elections. Incendiary rhetoric from political leaders against their adversaries, minorities and other target groups turns socially cohesive communities into tinderboxes ready to explode.

A study in Sweden, “Dynamics of violent and dehumanising rhetoric in far-right social media”, found that hateful speech spurs negative emotions towards the target community and greatly heightens the likelihood of violence. Another, of European audiences, “Fuelling the fire: Violent metaphors, trait aggression, and support for political violence”, shows exposure to politically charged rhetoric reinforces support for political violence and legitimises political aggression against the target community among perpetrators.

History is replete with cases where inflammatory political rhetoric inflamed passions and triggered savage internecine warfare that almost sank hitherto stable and flourishing states.

In 1992, Leon Mugesera, a high-ranking politician in Rwanda’s then-ruling Hutu party, told an excited crowd of supporters at a rally that members of the country’s minority Tutsi population were “cockroaches” who should pack and return to Ethiopia, their putative origins.

100-day genocide

Two years later, close to a million Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were butchered in a 100-day genocide whose scale and brutality stunned the international community.

After his arrest and conviction for incitement to genocide in 2016, Mugesera claimed that his speech was taken out of context.

Widespread hate speech and the fanning of ethnic discord, among other factors, sparked large-scale violence in the aftermath of the 2007 disputed elections that left nearly 1,500 people dead and another 600,000 displaced in Kenya. For months, the country teetered precariously on the brink of the precipice.

Dehumanising and odious descriptions such as “madoadoa” (blemishes) and “beasts from the west” had ominously found their way into the political discourse and further poisoned the pre-election environment.

In respect of political incitement, not even advanced democracies are immune to the threats posed by violence. In the US last year, rioters stormed Capitol Hill after former President Donald Trump’s incendiary speech in which he alleged electoral fraud and urged his supporters to “fight like hell”.

That manifestly demonstrates the immense influence politicians wield over the electorate and the perils of untamed rabble-rousing. Scaremongering and warmongering is classic Machiavellian politics; politicians endeavour to constrict voters within the political straitjacket of six-piece voting.

Article 38 of the Constitution guarantees every adult citizen the right to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum without unreasonable restrictions. Threatening Kenyans with eviction offends Articles 39 and 40, which provide for the right to reside, work and own property in any part of the country.

To nip sprouting hate speech in the bud, the investigative and prosecutorial authorities must build watertight cases that will result in convictions for the contemptible vice as senior and sober politicians dissuade their peers from reckless public utterances likely to strain the fabric that binds the society.

Mr Maosa is a banker. [email protected] @ndegemaosa


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