This week I listened to a captivating JK Live conversation involving three wise and bold men of God: Jackson Ole Sapit, Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya; Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome of Supkem & Centre for Sustainable Conflict Resolution; and Citam Presiding Bishop (Rtd) David Oginde.
Their discussion jogged my mind to the 1980s and 1990s when Ndingi Mwana ‘a Nzeki, Henry Okullu, David Gitari, Alexander Kipsang Muge, Timothy Njoya and others challenged an autocratic state by fearlessly speaking truth to power.
The recent trio’s moderated debate was sparked by, among other things, utterances attributed to Franklin Mithika Linturi, senator of Meru County, made at an Eldoret rally.
I cannot quote Linturi’s political salvo in extenso due to prevailing media ethics. But the gist of the message to Rift Valley was that her inhabitants must not allow people who oppose the Deputy President in his backyard to continue doing so, when the Mt Kenya and Meru populace is solidly behind the second-in-command. The Rift Valley ‘political gadflies’ were referred to as ‘madoadoa’ translated as ‘blemish’, ‘spots’ or ‘stains’.
In self-defence Linturi tweeted that his message was that the Rift Valley electorate must in the next General Election, consign the opponents he referred to into political Siberia. As the senator spoke, he asked questions, and the enthusiastic crowd replied that they were ready to do the needful.
Unfortunately, the parliamentarian’s choice of words evoked earlier harrowing memories. In the 1990s and 2007/2008, ‘the madoadoa’ inflammatory comments were used to fan electoral violence leading to the displacement and deaths of thousands and wanton destruction of property. In 2007/2008, we almost lost the country through civil strife just as was the case during the 1982 aborted coup d’etat. As a country, we have had two near misses; we should not court a third one.
Linturi’s words could carry multiple meanings such as: Target Rift Valley politicians and electorate opposed to the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) electorally or otherwise. Even Linturi overlooked the possibility of his message being misread by his community in Mt Kenya to mean that if the Rift Valley does not en masse support the Deputy President, then his community may not have reason to support William Ruto. One must always choose their words carefully.
The era in which both politicians and the electorate used to thrive in exchanging abusive toxic language — indeed hate speech, should be history. We have a plethora of laws and institutions that can restrain perpetuation of political misadventure. The question is: will these, for a change, work? Will the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the Registrar of Political Parties, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, etc?
If the above institutions robustly dealt with errant politicians according to the law; demonstrated nobody rich or poor, powerful or powerless is above the law, we would stem hate speech and its adverse consequences.
As I listened to the clergy patriots, I saw words can set a country aflame. Just mere words. After Kinjekitile Ngwale of Tanganyika gave fighters ‘sacred water’ to protect them from German colonisers’ bullets and after most of them were shot dead, when confronted, he told the survivors: “Mtu huzaa neno, na neno likawa kubwa kuliko mtu” (You can utter words and they produce unintended consequences).
Let us not kid ourselves. As of now, the 2022 presidential contest is an extremely close poll. If One Kenya Alliance (OKA) and any fourth coalition sustained their independent politics, then a run-off may possibly occur. A contested re-run is likely to complicate the 2022 General Election even further.
We have repeatedly heard each major candidate and their supporters vow they are poised to win. It is dangerous to pass the message to one’s supporters that if their side does not win, it can only mean that the elections have been rigged. Hence each presidential candidate must ask: how will I govern if my win is narrow? At what point in time, will I open dialogue with my opponents for post-election coalition building?
Again we must ask our leaders: when you win, how will you treat those who lost? First, will they have been defeated fairly? And here one is talking about the candidates who lose elections and their supporters. What assurances will be given by contestants that they will not vanquish losers? How do we define our democracy so that we blunt the sharp edges of the winner-takes-all framework?
No sound vision
As a politician, I have realised that those who deploy hate speech and other desperate measures don’t trust they can win in a just contest. Also, when a politician resorts to abusive or derogatory language, it means they have no sound vision, ideology, policy, programmes worth a citizen’s attention.
Even though our peoples’ civic awareness has risen, they are still susceptible to negative influence, especially on grounds of ethnic affiliation. Ole Sapit, Lethome and Oginde discussed the scourge of tribalism at length and its impact on our politics.
What is the logic of our politicians – including myself – mobilising on the basis of ethnicities and then promising Kenyans national unity? Isn’t there another route, as in mature democracies or even Tanzania, of politically mobilising outside the ethnic prism? Our politicians must be persuaded to abandon their tribe to pave way for the Kenya nation.
Most hate speech is conveyed through coded language in mother tongue radio stations or public rallies where politicians alternately speak in English, Kiswahili and then switch to their mother tongue for secret messaging. NCIC must track these potential avenues of mischief. Also citizens, as Oginde suggested, should storm out of venues where hate speech is spewed.
Why does the presidential poll attract such heightened interest? The belief is that those who access office will share the country’s resources among themselves first and foremost. The so called dregs of society remain poor and powerless even after waging inter-communal wars on behalf of their tribal elites.
As Kenyans, we harbour a scarcity mentality. That is why we want our person to win so that we can have more goodies than the others. We are fed, day in day out on this illusion. Instead of demanding that any government decisively addresses the plague of corruption and share resources equitably, we bask in the sun listening to our son or daughter promise us our ethnic Canaan.
Listening to the clergy wise men, I asked myself, whom do Kenyans listen to? For what purposes? Can we listen to the alternative voices of the clergy, civil society, business class, professionals, academia, our youth, etc? Why can’t we search for leadership that will help us solve our current and future problems instead of being swamped by campaign vitriol?
Handshake with Ruto
As we approach the August 2022 elections, we need in place a citizens’ lobby for free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful elections headed by the clergy from all faiths supported by representatives of youth organisations and other stakeholders.
I wish to make, with utmost respect, the following request. Since the President did a ‘handshake’ with Raila, a minor ‘handshake’ with Ruto to ease existing political temperatures would be a gift to Kenyans.