Ethnic hate speech reveals roots of violence in Kenya

By Reuben Kyama and Thomas Morfin ,AFP

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya takes pride in being a union of “42 tribes,” but a string of attacks in towns on its volatile Indian Ocean coast has exposed bitter and explosive ethnic tensions linked to politics. The series of killings in which around 100 people have died in recent weeks have provoked warlike political speeches, alarmist headlines, and offensive and inflammatory messages on social media. “There has been a surge of dangerous speech,” said 26-year-old Nanjira Sambuli, a project leader of Umati, an online project monitoring hate speech, based in Nairobi’s sleek iHub offices. The gruesome massacres near the tourist island of Lamu in June were claimed by the Shebab, Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked insurgents, saying the murders were retaliation for Kenya’s military role in their country. But Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has insisted the Shebab had nothing to do with it and instead blamed “local political networks” and ethnic hatred. Kenya’s media however saw him as pointing the finger at the main opposition, raising tensions further in a nation where political loyalties reflect ethnic differences.

‘Worrying proportions’ The attacks targeted areas settled decades ago by the Kikuyu, the same ethnic community as Kenyatta, who come traditionally from Kenya’s central highlands. Tensions are high on the coast, including an explosive mix of radical Islamists and separatists from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that campaigns for independence for the majority-Muslim coastal region. Messages on social media focus on “ethnicity,” often using a “coded language” full of innuendo, Sambuli said, while adding there were also many online trying to counter or “neutralize hate speech”. The government has launched a campaign promoting the hashtag #StopHateSpeechKenya to push for an end to online abuse. “The extent of hate speech and incitement has reached worrying proportions,” said Mary Ombara, a senior information ministry official. The national communications authority has warned radio and television stations against airing content that may divide the country along tribal lines. Balancing reporting on attacks and ensuring that it does not inflame tensions further has Kenya journalists treading a tightrope.