Failure to secure convictions fuelling political intolerance in pre-poll Kenya

2022 Elections

A ballot box. Incitement ahead of the crucial August 9 election risks sparking a new wave of violence.

Photo credit: File

Recent events in Kenya underscore politically instigated violence during election periods as an existential threat to democracy and a brutal assault on human choice and freedom.

When Thomas Jefferson famously said “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”, he suggested an inextricable (moral) link between democracy and violence. Succession moments have become the most dangerous periods in democracies.

In Jefferson’s 21st century America, the world watched with trepidation on January 6, 2021 as politically instigated rioters attacked and ransacked America’s Capitol Hill, the salient symbol of the world’s most powerful democracy.

Police officers were injured and five people killed in the audacious mob violence that threatened the important principle of peaceful transition.

Months before the orgy of violence at the Capitol, America’s populist President Donald Trump had claimed his victory would be stolen. He hatched the “voter fraud’ strategy, launched a populist “Stop the Steal” campaign and as vote counting continued, warned that “America is entering a period of political violence”.

The attack on the Capitol had all the makings of a coup. The planners of the riots had violent designs on both the Republican vice-president Mike Pence and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – the first and second in the line of presidential succession. Only a surgical impeachment of Trump by the House over “incitement of insurrection”” on January 13 nipped the coup and enabled the swearing-in of Joe Bidden.

In Kenya, incitement ahead of the crucial August 9 election risks sparking a new wave of violence.

On January 8, Meru Senator and staunch ally of Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Mithika Linturi, courted controversy when he called upon the residents of Eldoret to remove from the Rift Valley “madoadoa” who do not support Ruto.

Linturi’s madoadoa (Kiswahili for spots) remarks ignited a political firestorm. Whether targeted at individual political opponents or communities, the remarks were a classic case of dangerous profiling. They invoked the dark history of the “give-a-dog-a-bad-name-and-kill-it” ploy where génocidaires have profiled communities and killed them.

Adolf Hitler’s propagandists likened the Jews to "vermin" to rationalise the Holocaust. "When the vermin are dead, the German oak will again flourish," wrote the Der Stürmer newspaper, published by Julius Streicher, the Nazi leader in Nuremberg, where more than six million Jews died. In 1994, génocidaires in Rwanda described the Tutsi minorities as inyenzi (“cockroaches”) and inzoka (“snakes”), sparking the genocide that killed as high as 1.1 million Rwandese.

Since Kenya’s return to multi-party democracy in 1991, rival communities were labelled as “bunyot” (“enemy”) and “madoadoa”, setting the stage for cycles of violence that marred elections, killed thousands, displaced nearly a million others and destroyed livelihoods and property worth billions of dollars.

As a result of unpunished political incitement, in 1992, more than 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the Rift Valley. Almost a similar number was killed and more than 500,000 displaced in the 1997/1998 violence.

And more than 1,300 Kenyans lost their lives and nearly 600,000 were internally displaced during the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

Kiambaa Church massacre

The worst of these attacks was the Kiambaa Church Massacre, some 25km from Eldoret town, where Linturi made the “madoadoa” remarks. It remains a blotch in the conscience of the World.

In Kenya, violence is a strategy to win or retain power by negatively influencing the outcome of elections. This fraudulent strategy has three strands.

First, to displace and disenfranchise rival communities in order to depress the vote in multi-ethnic zones; second to reward the local community with land and property of the displaced in exchange for loyalty and votes; and third to allege voter fraud, reject results and seize power.

Kenya’s populists have bought hook, line and sinker Trump’s 'voter fraud' strategy and spread related disinformation months before polling day. Arguably, this is to prepare the way to reject election results and call mobs to the streets to defend ‘stolen victory’.

Between April and July 2021, Trump mentioned rigged elections or voter fraud more than 70 times and sponsored the #StoptheSteal campaign in social media.

In a similar vein, on July 23, 2021, 20 MPs aligned to Ruto alleged during a press conference held at Parliament Buildings that some individuals in government – the ‘deep state’ – were plotting to rig the 2022 presidential elections. Rigging claims have grown bolder and louder.

This month, Ruto said he had information on some discreet plans to steal his victory in August.

“I know this is a tight race pitting me against the so-called system, but some people forget that I have been and I am part of the system,’’ he said.

Laudably, the authorities have shown readiness to take action. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions have coordinated efforts to promptly arrest purveyors of political incitement.

Linturi apologised but later retracted the apology through his attorney.

And although Ruto distanced himself from Linturi’s remarks, more than 20 United Democratic Alliance MPs came out to defend Linturi, terming his arrest political witch-hunt.

On January 11, the NCIC summoned Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot for making remarks that allegedly bordered on racism and incitement targeting Kesses MP of Indian descent Mishra Swarup Ranjan during the same Eldoret rally on January 8. Authorities have also booked Kitutu Chache MP Richard Onyonka over alleged inflammatory remarks during a rally in Kisii County.

Still in January, Former Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel was also charged with making abusive and hateful remarks against two communities on July 17, 2021. The remarks have been blamed for fuelling ethnic hatred and violence in Laikipia County.

Sadly, zero convictions in these cases will only encourage more intolerance and violence, especially in cosmopolitan counties.

Arrests must end in conviction to deter incitement and insulate democratic elections from violence.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and now Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute (API)


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.