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Politicians should not sow hatred

OPINION
By Tom Mboya | February 13th 2021

Supporters of a politician hang dangerously on a fast-moving vehicle in Homabay. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The ‘silly season’ is upon us already, it seems! In American politics, the term ‘silly season’ refers to the period when primaries are over, but the general election is several weeks away. In Kenya, we are yet to conduct primary elections, though based on the flurry of political activities one would think the general election is imminent.

One of the most disturbing things from our politics is the type of language and rhetoric carelessly bandied about, without consideration for the effect this has on the electorate, the political process, or indeed, the state of the nation.

The ‘hustler vs dynasty’ narrative, propagated by one section of the political class is one such example of rhetoric that may, in the long term, do more harm than good. From a political perspective, it has the potential to be divisive, setting stage for an unnecessary class conflict.

It is, unfortunately, not unusual for politicians to rally their supporters against one another. Recently we have witnessed numerous such cases featuring the use of careless political rhetoric to galvanise supporters; while others have stigmatised groups of Kenyans purely for the purpose of scoring political points against another politician. The effect of these words escalates an already tense political environment, and will almost certainly continue to play out.

It is not as if any of this behaviour is new. Time and again, this strategy has been deployed to galvanise support bases, despite the cost to the political process, and the human cost that ensues. The political class pursues this brand of politics, despite the knowledge that we have flirted with disaster in the past, as manifested by the 2007/8 post-election violence in which over 1,300 people died, and more than 300,000 displaced.

In fact, far from being unique to Kenyan politics, the effect of careless political rhetoric played out in an unprecedented manner after the recent US elections. Following a protracted period of baseless claims and accusations of electoral fraud by former President Trump, and in a last-ditch attempt to sway the process in his favour, Trump sought to convince his Vice President Mike Pence to reject the certification of the electoral college votes, despite it being beyond his powers to do so.

Perpetuating a narrative he knew to be false, Trump impressed upon his supporters that their ability to retain the presidency rested squarely upon the shoulders of Pence in the certification process.

Energised by Trump’s rhetoric and his plea for the throng of supporters to march to the Capitol, the events of January 6th 2021 are in the public domain.

It was further reported that a part of the mob marauding through the corridors of the Capitol chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” with a noose at the ready, when it became clear that he had failed to “act” as suggested by Trump. As a result of this dark and wholly avoidable episode, five people including a Capitol police officer were killed, while 140 were injured.

The fact is in politics, words matter. Politicians must accept that their words are powerful. They have the power to inspire and unite, or to incite and divide. They also have the power to cause tremendous damage and even loss of life. With that power, therefore, comes great responsibility: a responsibility to those that elected them, as well as those that did not. A responsibility to ensure they do no harm, whether knowingly or unwittingly. Most importantly, they have a duty NOT to use the power of their positions, speech, or platforms to sow division and discord.

Regardless of where we are in the world, the effect of words uttered by politicians have far-reaching societal consequences, and those irresponsible or flippant with this responsibility ought to be held accountable for their actions.

-The writer is a governance and political affairs consultant

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