Kenya’s potential for genocide can be seen in ethnic-profiling and negative propaganda

Wednesday October 11 2017

Preserved human skulls on display at the

Preserved human skulls on display at the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata, inside a Catholic church where thousands were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. FILE PHOTO | AFP 

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For a profound, deeply disturbing and life-changing lesson on how hate speech can lead to genocide, the tribal fanatics in Kenya’s ruling party Jubilee and opposition alliance Nasa should visit the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali.

There, one learns about the gradual and systematic dehumanisation of the Tutsi. One finds subtle and no-so-subtle justification for the community’s marginalisation on the basis of false propaganda.

There are depictions of the community as being morally inferior. The community is described as treacherous and dangerous, and as having one goal: the elimination of the Hutu.

There is a cartoon depicting Paul Kagame, then commander of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, walking on coffins of Hutus. The message is blood chillingly clear: Defending the government is akin to safeguarding the survival of the Hutu.

There is, too, documentation of the periodic murderous pogroms against Tutsi, and the exiling of thousands. The memorial museum really curates the various stages of the choreography of genocide.

In 1994, this choreography climaxed in a three-month orgy of murder of a million people by their neighbours and compatriots.

In Kenya, we have never experienced the magnitude of the ethnic violence witnessed in Rwanda, Burundi and the DR Congo. But we, too, have had ethnic clashes at various stages of our history, which indicate that larger scale ethnic violence is not a farfetched notion.

There were clashes when Tom Mboya was assassinated in 1969. The assassination was followed by government–sponsored oath taking, swearing to protect the “kingship”, as part of ensuring the survival of the ethnic group which dominated the government of the time. We had government–instigated clashes in 1992 and 1997.

In the ethnic clashes of 2007/8, again instigated, financed and facilitated by political leaders, an estimated 1,500 people lost their lives in horrifying ways. Some were burnt alive in their homes and a church. Others were pulled out of public vehicles and hacked to death. The number of women raped has never been determined.

Just as in Rwanda, the killings whether in 1969 or 2007, were foreshadowed by hate speech, subtle and not-so-subtle profiling of ethnic groups as being morally or intellectually inferior.

As in Rwanda, there were depictions of certain ethnic groups, through baseless propaganda, as treacherous, and desirous of the elimination of other ethnic groups. And just as in Rwanda, those who killed in 1969, in 1992 or 2007 believed that they were killing subhuman people, and that they did so in order to eliminate an existential threat to themselves.

Mercifully, these murderous convulsions did not escalate to genocide. But the potential is always there. The period, for instance, leading up to this year’s annulled election was characterised by the language of genocide described above.

And now again, as we head to the fresh election, slated for October 26, hate speech, coded and open depiction of communities as morally or intellectually inferior, and as posing an existential threat to the survival of others are the language and method of political mobilisation. Key jubilee figures hurl demeaning personal insults at opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Not to be outdone, opposition leaders hurl personal insults at Uhuru Kenyatta and his family. Odinga is depicted as power hungry and his community as an existential threat to the ruling communities. Uhuru and his community are profiled as thieves.

On social media, there are cartoons showing Kenyatta and Odinga or their communities in shockingly demeaning ways.

On vernacular radio and TV stations, Jubilee members from central Kenya portray their defence of Uhuru as protecting the “ kingship’” They liken themselves to the Mau Mau, and castigate those in their community they see as not being loyal as home guards, a reference to the hated Kikuyu soldiers who fought for the British during the Mau Mau war.

Of course all this foaming-at-the-mouth, hate-filled propaganda from Jubilee and Nasa is, like all forms of fascism, based on half truths, falsehoods, wrong analogies, false claims, wrong correlations, simplifications of complex social dynamics and, above all, emotional appeal. The goal is to capture or retain power in order to appropriate resources for the benefit of a few privileged tribal elites. But is this worth the horror of genocide?

I know that both Jubilee and Nasa love their hatemongers, and rally around them. But it is now time for Kenyatta and Odinga to rein in their tribal fanatics and remind them that this contest has nothing to do with existential threats to communities, and educate them instead that this should be a contest of ideas and policies.

Tee Ngugi is a social commentator. E-mail: [email protected]