Verah Okeyo discusses how hashtags created as a tool for campaigning on social media became a forum to spread ethnic hatred. This article is part of our African Elections series.
Kenya’s internet penetration stands at 88 per cent, arguably the highest in Africa, a technological advantage that has been used in the recent general election to perpetuate tribal hate.
Hashtags that were initially meant to campaign, and fault the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for any perceived electoral malpractice, turned into hate messages.
All eyes were on the elections in the East African power house given its history of violence in general elections, where the media— social and mainstream— were blamed for fuelling the bloodshed.
The local media succeeded in self-censorship during this election; the same cannot be said of the social media.
Kenyan security agencies have expressed concern over the use of social media to spew vitriolic tribal messages that have worsened ethnic tensions in the country.
On August 11, 2017, a day after the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner, the opposition leader Raila Odinga did not accept the results claiming that there had been rigging.
Violence erupted in pockets of the country allied to the opposition and by Sunday August 13, 2017, 24 people had died, including a ten-year-old.
As the police turned on civilians with brutal force, and thieves seized the opportunity to turn on their neighbours, Kenyans on social media were in a war of their own.
Just like 2007 and 2013, tensions rose as the nation waited for the announcement of the official results as conspiracy theories about where votes may have been “stolen” flew back and forth from the opposition party.
Then it morphed to humour in #GitheriMan, after Martin Kamotho, pictured queuing to vote while eating a meal of succotash, a meal of maize and beans meal known locally as githeri, spawned a series of memes.
Mr Odanga said: “During the post-election period, we noticed that the uncertainty was quite measurable with people expressing their reservations about the results. Also given the monotony of the news landscape at the time, a media vacuum was created which happened to be filled by the entertainment of the Githeriman.”
Historical and cultural uniqueness
Outsiders are often oblivious about why some jokes cause such anger among the different ethnic groups in Kenya. This is because the memes or the jokes are crafted around a tribe’s widely known historical and cultural uniqueness.
For example, Luo men are not circumcised, a ritual that is considered a sign of masculinity and maturity among the Bantus such as the Kikuyu. Those that aim to offend the Luo would use this on them.
The Kikuyu, the largest and richest group in Kenya, are perceived to be greedy and skilled in stealing and scheming. The winning candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, hails from the Kikuyu community while the opposition comes from the Nilotic Luo tribe.
The Luo, always in the opposition, live in Nyanza, parts of western Kenya areas that have suffered neglect. Even though the decentralisation of the government should improve the distribution of resources, they still hold to the fact that they have been consistently sidelined by successive governments.
The animosity between the Kikuyu and Luo dates back to the founding fathers of Kenya, Kenya’s first president and vice-president, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga, whose relationship deteriorated even though they were once allies.
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a Luo, is considered the father of multiparty democracy in Kenya.
In a 2013 paper published in the Kenya Law reports, deceased political scientist Prof Ali Mazrui writes about how Jaramogi turned down an offer from the Briton Governor Sir Patrick Renison to be the first prime minister of independent Kenya in 1960.
He chose to wait for Jomo Kenyatta to be released to be the premier, only for the Kenyatta to jail Odinga (then vice president) in 1969 over ideological differences.
Coincidentally, Jomo Kenyatta is the father of the current president while Jaramogi the father of the opposition leader Raila Odinga.
History always repeats itself in each election leaving the Luo feeling betrayed and denied of the opportunity to have one of their own as President such as the 2007 elections when Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu,was unexpectedly declared the president.
Mr Odinga was in the lead in most of the regions in the country until the second day when the number in favour of Mr Kibaki shot up and the then chairman of the electoral body the late Samuel Kivuitu declared him a winner.
This was Raila’s second attempt at the presidency; the first was in 1997.
Kenyans, on either side, recall and exaggerate these histories and allow it to fuel their hatred for the opposition.
Twitter handles with attitude
In her book Kenya @ 50, cultural analyst Dr Joyce Nyairo, has devoted a whole chapter, entitled:
#SomeoneTellCNN: The Agency of Cyber Warriors and the Restoration of a National Image, to evaluate the attitudes of the Twitter and Facebook handles of many Kenyans.
Twitter accounts like @ThePatriotsKE show one’s declaration of being patriotic. These are accompanied by banners and profile pictures that demonstrate one’s loyalty to a political party, cause or tribe.
Dr Nyairo’s book also recognises Kenyans’ power to “tell” others especially when they feel the mainstream media failed or they are being unfairly represented: CNN executive vice president and managing director Tony Maddox flew to apologise to Kenya after #SomeoneTellCNN
Armed with smartphones— and a whopping 26 per cent of Kenyans have smartphones— they churned memes, videos and pictures (some real, others from the past) to condemn the killing of civilians and spew the hate.
Verah Okeyo (@BeyondaHeadline) is a science reporter at Kenya’s Daily Nation.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.