The arrest of two Kenyan MPs from the Rift Valley over utterances deemed to incite ethnic hatred is yet another sign that the silly, and potentially apocalyptic, season is upon us. Early this year, the senator for Narok County was arrested over statements that were also deemed hate speech.
Unfortunately, the detention of the two MPs or the earlier arrest of the senator will not deter even more incendiary statements by politicians as we approach the 2022 elections. Since return of multiparty politics in Kenya, hate speech has become a winning political strategy.
Ethnic mobilisation as a political strategy has two objectives. First, frame political contest as a war between ethnic groups with the winners getting exclusive access to development. Second, promote yourself as the most capable of defending your ethnic community against an onslaught by one ethnic group or a combination of several.
The medieval philosophy of this strategy is that poverty in an ethnic community can be blamed on other communities. But Kenya is poor, not because of a tribe, but because elites from all ethnic groups have over the years siphoned billions of dollars into private offshore accounts and/or into buying properties all over the world. The recent heist of funds meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19 shows that thieving elites are extremely callous and don’t care whether those who die from the disease are from their tribe or others.
The tragedy of this kind of politics is that the electorate does not evaluate politicians on criteria such as integrity, progressive ideas or history of performance. The result is a parliament of people who have absolutely no idea what role their office plays in national development.
Is it any wonder that MPs who vent the most incendiary statements have never advanced any idea, policy or strategy to advance national good? So we do not only elect people who gobble up huge salaries and allowances, but also who do nothing to bake the national cake. And more often than not, these are the same people linked to massive thievery.
But perhaps economic stagnation or regression is not the most tragic result of ethnic mobilisation as a political strategy. The war-mongering poses an existential threat to the nation. In Rwanda, since independence, Hutu politicians made political careers from profiling Tutsis as intellectually and morally deficient and as a stumbling block to prosperity of the Hutu.
In 1994, a genocide was hatched to clear the “problem” once and for all. The Hutu peasants and urban poor who perpetrated the killings never paused to think who it was that had really caused their condition. They had bought so thoroughly into a lie that they could not see that their poverty was caused by the same elites now urging them to kill fellow poor people.
Likewise in Kenya, in every election cycle, thieving elites tell us our poverty is caused by this or that tribe. The tragedy of Kenya is that we buy this lie.