When leaders speak, their words carry heavy implications. Through their rhetoric, leaders can bring hope to the people. Words can speak unity and amity; promote healing and close divides. Similarly, words can be the basis or genesis of dissonance, cruelty, discrimination and even death.
This is why recent utterances by some politicians have jolted the country into a debate about the limits of freedom of speech and how leaders should conduct themselves in public.
Kenya is no stranger to the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric. The country has repeatedly been dragged down the path of destruction because some leaders leveraged toxic speech for political headway. Kenya’s worst episode of violence witnessed in 2007/2008 was largely a product of uncivilised rhetoric that glorified chaos.
To stymie this appetite for unsavoury language and conduct, the country in 2008 passed the National Cohesion and Integration Act that spawned the National Cohesion and Integration Commission. Yet political leaders of all persuasions continue to prop their careers on labels, derogatory, demeaning and divisive language.
Hate speech has been a key ingredient in political mobilisation; executed on the undying faith in the gullibility of the Kenyan public. When some leaders engage in unpatriotic acts, they cleverly tie their ill feelings to tribal plights. Personal challenges, including wide ranging illegalities, are twisted to portray a community being hunted down by amorphous forces.
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Like a family, Kenya cannot realise its development aspirations when leaders politic and fight all the time. Currently, the country is in the deep throws of a health and economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions have lost jobs. Businesses have gone under. Irrespective of their ethnicity, Kenyans are collectively commiserating. All they want is a responsive leadership that will help them climb out of the economic hellhole – not news headlines filled with vitriol.
This is not to assume that leaders must always agree on how to govern. Politics is a game of competition. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and political pluralism. Opinions are many and ideas on how to move the nation forward are divergent. However, such diversity can be expressed in ways that protects and consolidates national unity and wellness. There are enough words in any language that can facilitate expression of disagreement without resorting to name-calling and ethnic balkanization.
As the renowned American linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky opines, words are the currency of power. Leaders can use words to appeal to our sense of reason; and through persuasion, win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Similarly, words can stir the animus in all of us, to catastrophic ends.
Kenyans should, therefore, consistently and overtly say shun the few leaders who resort to fear mongering, anxiety and division as a way of getting back at perceived political enemies.
While social media has expanded the space and deepened the reach of the masses by the lethal tongues, the citizens should utilise the same platform to send clear messages to the offenders that time has come for constructive politics and progressive ideas. The mainstream media should equally deny the hatemongers the channels they badly need to sow their poisoned seeds.
Those entrusted with public office should at all times reflect on the infallibility of the oaths they take in serving the people. As someone aptly remarked, there is no good war, just like there is no bad peace. Kenyans deserve and badly crave a unifying force, a voice of reason, and development conscious leader. That is why they cast their ballot, in the hope that their vote eventually counts.
More fundamentally, the responsible agencies should proactively play their role in cutting the value chain of national denigration at the altar of politics. The country should not risk going into another electioneering period where abuse, stigmatisation and victimisation of opponents is the norm rather than exception.
-The writer is a governance and international relations researcher. Twitter: @Cavinceworld.