Ethnic hate speech is horrible, yes, but it's the bitter pill the doctor ordered for Africa

Since classical rebellion is no longer the first option, it was only natural that the war would shift to the Internet in the shape of hate speech.

KENYA is being “torn apart” by bitter and explosive ethnic tensions linked to politics, which in turn are being fanned by social media and call-in programmes on FM stations.

But Kenya is not alone. From South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, to Libya and Egypt, deadly and sharply divisive ethnic, race, or religious waves of attacks are pouring out in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

As the French news agency AFP put it, in Kenya’s case, “it is a country that takes pride in being a union of ‘42 tribes’,” but a string of attacks in towns on its volatile Indian Ocean coast have exposed what at first looks like a fragile underbelly.

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 told AFP.

The Shabaab claimed the gruesome massacres near the tourist island of Lamu in June, Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, saying the murders were retaliation for Kenya’s military role in their country.

But Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has insisted the Shabaab had nothing to do with it and instead blamed “local political networks” and ethnic hatred.

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 “neutralise hate speech”.

“The extent of hate speech and incitement has reached worrying proportions,” said Mary Ombara, a senior information ministry official.

Politicians and activists have all been accused of running hate campaigns, while others raise the issues of free speech and censorship.

Memories are still bitter of the ethnic clashes following 2007 elections, Kenya’s worst unrest since independence.

Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are facing crimes against humanity trials for their alleged parts in that violence at the International Criminal Court.

The 2007-8 violence erupted when Opposition leader Raila Odinga accused then president Mwai Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election. But what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings.

Since the Lamu attacks, hate leaflets have been distributed warning specific ethnic groups to leave the area.

Surprise, surprise, a peaceful period!

From another perspective, though, all is not bleak. In the late 1970s, most of the 1980s and through of the 1990s, most of these tensions blew out in civil wars and military coups.

Though countries like Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and Libya are still wracked by violence, this is actually one of the most peaceful periods in Africa. Military coups are very few and far in between, and whole regions of the continent, like southern Africa, are calm.

The East African Community (EAC) regional bloc, is a peaceful swathe. West African nations like Mali are troubled by insurgent violence, yes, but discounting that and the Islamist-inspired violence by Boko Haram in Nigeria, that region is also relatively stable. Rickety as it might be, poster boy for state failure Somalia also finally got a functioning government of sorts, and there is rebuilding going in places like Mogadishu to the soundtrack of the occasional Al Shabaab terror attack.

A different era

The events in Africa are also playing out in a very different context. Twenty-five years ago there was neither Internet, nor private radio, except for two or so church stations, or TV anywhere on the continent. Over the last two decades there has a phenomenal explosion. For example Uganda, one of the first countries to liberalise the airwaves at the end of 1993, today has nearly 200 FM radio stations of varying quality and hues, broadcasting all over the country. This story is replicated in many other African countries.

The effect of these new avenues of free expression are everywhere: When Chinua Achebe’s book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published in 2012, it unleashed a flood of ethnic fury and baiting in Nigerian cyberspace the kind, not just Africa, but probably the world, had ever seen.

Ethiopians on social media went to unusual lengths to denounce the country’s former and late strongman Meles Zenawi, labelling him and his Tigrinya community the worst possible names and calling for the elimination of the “vermin”.

The smallest action by Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame and his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) still unleashes a denunciation of the Tutsi, that makes the extremists who carried out the 1994 genocide look like angels. South Africa on the other hand, endures frequent outbursts of a most unreconstructed racial debate.

Scary but good too

It can be scary, as in Kenya, lead to deaths, and often governments respond with a raft of crackdowns, but it will not go away until it runs its course. That is because it is necessary.

Beneath all the hate speech, Africans are doing something their forefathers were never able to do – debate the terms on which its colonial borders established by the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, and even earlier ones shaped by conquering emperors as in Ethiopia, came to be. It is fuelled by both a sense of exclusion many groups feel, and a desire to be included by others. Equally, groups that have something to lose feel threatened in the face of a rising tide of resentment, and resort to hate speech as a push back and a way of circling the wagons.

The most repressive approaches can only suspend the debate. Those who bury their heads in the sand will find that the tribal noise has got even louder when they eventually have to come up for fresh air.

Countries might be bent out of shape in the end, and the map of Africa could well be redrawn.

However, at a time when classical rebellion is no longer the first option, and several African economies are growing richer, it was only natural that the war would shift to the Internet and airwaves. In that sense, there is something positive – and inevitable - about the current insanity by Africans on social media. Many who take to social media have been disarmed; the machetes, clubs, and guns have been taken out of their hands – a toast to that.

The countries and leaders who will come out on top in all this, are those who respond creatively and disarm this wave with reforms and appropriate social bribery. And there will be those who will be swept away, and end in ruins – the ones who will bring out the hammer, run, or hide.

Additional reporting by AFP.


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