Letter from Africa: Fight back against hate

A protester prods a burning tyre roadblock as he and others take to the streets to protest the results of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) primary elections in Kisumu in January 2013 Ethnic and religious differences have fuelled conflict in Kenya

In our series of letters from African journalists, broadcaster and media trainer Joseph Warungu reflects on Kenya's efforts to curb hate speech.

I hate you.

Not you the reader.

But you who speaks a different tongue, you from a different village, you in a different class, you from a different faith.

And yes, you with a different viewpoint.

These are some of the written, spoken, whispered and silent or implied sentiments being expressed by some Kenyans, especially political leaders.

A supporter of Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga on 7 July 2014 at the Uhuru park grounds in Nairobi Hate speech increased in the build-up to an opposition rally on 7 July
A Kenyan police officer stands near a burning road block which was set up by an angry mob at Nyalenda slum in Kisumu after the official declaration of the final results of the presidential elections on 9 March 2013 Kenya's security forces have vowed to act against anyone who causes violence

Indeed, judging by the number of recent warnings from authorities, police summons and discussions among people, there is quite a bit of hatred being traded in Kenya today.

As I write this the Kenyan government, troubled by continued hate talk online has just launched a new hashtag, #StopHatespeechKenya to "ensure hate messages are kept at bay".

'Restricting comedians'

This move comes just two days after Kenya's police chief announced that his force is investigating hate leaflets circulating in Lamu, an area of coastal Kenya that has witnessed a wave of killings in recent days.

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And so the country is armed with a statutory bulldog (although some say it has only one tooth) that barks whenever anyone utters a breath of hate”

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Such hate leaflets have already surfaced elsewhere in the country, warning members of the "other" communities to leave their area or else...

Much of the hate talk is politically motivated but some of it is just cover for deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalry.

Having gone through the trauma of the violence that followed the 2007 general elections, Kenya is always nervous of events and utterances that could trigger these memories or worse still provoke a repeat of the mayhem.

And so the country is armed with a statutory bulldog (although some say it has only one tooth) that barks whenever anyone utters a breath of hate.

Established in 2008 in response to the post-election violence, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), is charged with facilitating and promoting equality of opportunity, good relations and peaceful coexistence between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds in Kenya.

Africa's most diverse countries:
  • DR Congo: Population 72m; More than 250 ethnic groups
  • Nigeria: 170m people, more than 250 groups
  • Tanzania: 47m people; 130 groups
  • Chad: 11m people, more than 100 languages
  • Ethiopia: 91m people, 77 groups
  • Kenya: 42m people; more than 70 groups
Africa's most homogeneous countries:
  • Lesotho: 2m people; 99.7% Sotho
  • Somalia: 10m; 85% Somali (divided into clans)
  • Burundi: 11m people; 85% Hutu; 14% Tutsi
  • Rwanda: 12m people; 84% Hutu; 15% Tutsi
  • Swaziland: 1m people; 84% Swazi
  • Botswana: 2m people; 79% Tswana

Source: CIA World Factbook, US state dept, Encyclopaedia Britannica, UN


In the past, the NCIC monitored hate speech in the media and at public rallies, leading to the arrest of a few public figures, including musicians - but hardly anyone of substance to make an example of.

It didn't help that at some point comedians and artists found themselves severely restricted, as their staple of jokes based on ethnic stereotypes were deemed to verge on hate speech.

This led to an ongoing debate - where does freedom of expression end and hate speech start?

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (r) at a political rally on 23 February  2013 at Oloitokitok, near the Tanzanian border Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (R) won disputed elections in 2013
An effigy of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga burns in Nairobi on 18 June 2014 Political tensions remain high - this effigy of opposition leader Raila Odinga was set on fire last month

Global experience has shown that it is extremely difficult to regulate or arrest people's mouths - especially political ones that usually have a mind of their own.

So, despite efforts by the NCIC and the police, hate speech is rife, especially online.

And given the level of vitriol, it is doubtful whether the government anti-hate speech hashtag will make much difference.


Hate talk amongst politicians picked up speed in the lead-up to a rally organised on 7 July by the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) to demand action to solve the economic, political and security problems facing the country.

Moses Kuria, an aspiring MP from the governing Jubilee Coalition, was charged with hate speech for a message he posted on Facebook, which the prosecution said amounted to incitement of ethnic hatred.

Cord leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on the other hand, has in the last fortnight found himself at the centre of a private prosecution by a man who is accusing him of hate speech over allegedly inflammatory words he uttered at a rally earlier in the year.

Hate speech in Kenya:
  • Most hate speech is linked to ethnicity and religion
  • More than 17,000 incidents reported since September 2012
  • More than 90% of online dangerous speech is on Facebook
  • Hate speech on Twitter tends to be shunned by users

Source: iHub


With the introduction of tougher laws to curb incitement and as Kenyans have tried to deal with the violence often provoked by the powerful, the politicians have become cleverer with their language.

Hate speech is now covert and employs seemingly harmless but loaded words.

But the audience gets it. And the speaker knows full well they do.

"Removing of weeds" takes a very different connotation from ordinary farming. The audience knows it is the impending destruction and displacement of a community.

Reference to the "foreskin" ceases to have a biological or anatomical context. It points to a rival community with the full chauvinism and disdain intended by the speaker.

Over the years, hate speech has also migrated online where the cover of relative anonymity has provided a fertile ground.

A man weeps in  Kiamba, near the western Kenyan town of Eldoret, on 19 April 2008 More than 1,000 people were killed in Kenya after a bitterly contested election in 2007

iHub, Nairobi's famous innovation hub for the technology community, has been running a huge research project in Kenya monitoring hate speech online and is now extending its experience to Nigeria.

Facebook has been the predominant medium of hate. The year-long iHub research found that in 2013 more than 90% of online "dangerous speech", with potential to catalyze violence, was found on Facebook.

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The Kenyan government does not have a very good history of dialogue with its opponents”

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The Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) has warned that "some broadcast stations are taking advantage of the prevailing political situation in the country to air content containing hate speech".

CAK threatened to take regulatory action, including withdrawal of broadcast frequencies from the offending stations.

Despite scepticism by jittery authorities, Cord's rally passed off peacefully.

And so too did the opportunity pass to tone down hate speech and lower political temperatures by means of a constructive national dialogue between the government and the opposition as demanded by Cord.

The Kenyan government does not have a very good history of dialogue with its opponents.

The opposition, too, does not have a reputation for much patience.


The gap created by this polarity is often filled by rhetoric and hate talk.

Years ago, when then-President Daniel arap Moi was facing stiff opposition, he often responded harshly to any calls for political dialogue.

Any attempt to end his one-party rule and expand the democratic space by introducing a multi-party political system was met with maximum force.

A funny story is told of how one semi-educated prominent politician, who was extremely loyal to Mr Moi, advised him to appease university students who were holding protests to demand dialogue.

"Your government has a lot resources, so if all that these young people want is just dialogue, you can afford to give them - let them eat it," counselled the man, assuming that dialogue was a kind of food that was missing from the university cafeteria.

I can't quite vouch for the accuracy of this quote, but I can confirm that hate speech is getting to worrying levels in Kenya and has prompted some to think hard about possible solutions.

Rwandan refugees in DR Congo (1994) Hate speech was a feature of the Rwandan genocide, which led some two million people to flee the country

Many Kenyans are beginning to fight back against hate, especially online.

iHub researchers say that they are seeing a lot more self-regulation, with people now more likely to call out use of hate speech.

But judging by the Kenyan government's hashtag war against hate speech online, it may be a long while before the digital space is declared safe.

This year, Rwanda has been marking 20 years since the genocide, while South Africa is looking back 20 years since the end of apartheid.

Using these historic cases and other examples of hate speech in Kenya, South Sudan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, the African Media Initiative - the continent's largest association of media owners and operators and which I sometimes work with - has chosen to focus on hate speech during its annual meeting in Johannesburg in November.

These are the steps of just a few of those determined to stop Kenya and Africa continuing to sing: "Hate me babe one more time".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Certain people are only to happy to cry racist at every opportunity, when someone disagrees with their politically motivated views on life and society,the same sort of people who guffaw loudly when the object of ridicule is the white working class, but dare crticize the beliefs, actions or culture of another's ethnicity, and they are screaming blue murder..a very sad and insecure bunch they are..

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Percentages don't matter. This is the forum of the BBC. House rules may be simple and clear in their nature, but they are clearly being used to stifle opposition and decent. If the government used anti terrorism laws to quell a student demonstration the Beeb would be up in arms, yet they use'off topic' and 'may cause offence' in exactly the same manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    168. AliBenSawali
    166. It's unlike any other forum in that we are forced to fund the BBC and therefore this forum via the licence fee.

    Also, the percentage of the licence fee that goes towards maintaining HYS is negligible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    68. AliBenSawali
    We therefore have a stake in this forum and should not be overly censored by the BBC for simply not agreeing with their narrow political and moral viewpoint.

    If you think very clear, simple and easily accessible house rules are censorship you don't know what censorship or free speech is. I am a licence fee payer as well, and I, like many, don't share your view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    166. It's unlike any other forum in that we are forced to fund the BBC and therefore this forum via the licence fee. We therefore have a stake in this forum and should not be overly censored by the BBC for simply not agreeing with their narrow political and moral viewpoint. This forum belongs to the nation, not just those in west london suburbs.


Comments 5 of 172


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