Kenya electoral protests spill onto social media

A supporter of Kenya's opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) carries a placard during a protest against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)
A supporter of Kenya's opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) carries a placard during a protest against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Kenya's latest crisis over plans to reform the Electoral Commission has triggered alarm bells among Kenyans, worried it could lead to a repeat scenario of the violence witnessed in 2007 and 2008. The ethnic rivalries that cost the lives of 1,000 people, are flaring up again, but this time online.


The trigger was the photo of a five year old boy, lying face down in agony, after being shot in the back during protests on Monday in Kisumu.

Like the photo of drowned Syrian boy Aylan last year, that of Jeremy Otieno has sparked national outrage.

The hashtag #JusticeForBabyJeremy was retweeted thousands of times on Tuesday, in a sign of growing anger at police brutality.

The fact that Otieno was shot while at his home in Kasule, Manyatta estate, and not actually in the protest itself, has added oil to the fire.

"The police were deliberately going after people, that's why they raided the estate," blogger Kenya West told RFI on Tuesday.

This weekend, police officials banned protesters from demonstrating, with Kenya's chief of police warning those who "value [their] life, not to come and demonstrate."

The warnings have been brushed aside by the government as merely part of the job.

"If opposition protesters are going to loot, destroy property and then expect that somehow no one will criticize their behaviour or react, I'm sorry that won't happen," government spokesman Esipisu Manoah told RFI.

Reconciliation had seemed possible after a photo of President Uhuru Kenyatta and CORD leader Raila Odinga appeared on the front pages of leading newspapers last week.

But the mood was swiftly soured after Kenyatta back-pedalled on an agreement to let Odinga-picked mediators modify the make-up of the electoral commission.

"The ruling Jubilee coalition feels very strongly that there is no need for dialogue and that indeed the IBEC [Electoral Commission] is an office, that is legally and lawfully binding; and therefore should be in charge of overseeing the next election in 2017," government consultant Tom Mboya told RFI.

However, "the Opposition CORD also feels very strongly that the IBEC needs to be removed from office and in particular the commissioners who have had integrity questions asked about them."

The Commission's integrity was already in question after the last elections in 2013 in which it was seen as playing a hand in ensuring the ruling Jubilee party came back to power.

This time concerns centre over its dealings with two British nationals, who were recently convicted in the UK for bribing commissioners to get ballot box contracts. In Kenya, their counterparts are still yet to be charged, fuelling speculation about its dodgy dealings.

Online tribal warfare

Elsewhere, new battlelines are being drawn, as rival supporters of the government and opposition air their differences online.

"The levels of tribal hatred going on in social media is not just absurd it's alarming," blogger Kanye West told RFI.

Criticis say that both Kenyatta and Odinga are exploiting ethnic rivalries between the Kikuyus and the Luos for their own benefit.

"The government for instance is using sponsored hashtags, such as #BanCORDProtests, getting bloggers to run its campaign. Some of these people are even trying to justify the shooting of baby Jeremy, saying why was he near to the rally in Kisumu?"

So far the violence of the past few weeks remains relatively little compared to the bloodshed that rocked the country in 2007 and 2008.

"There are parallels, but it's too soon to say whether or not we're heading to a repeat of 2007 and 2008," consultant Tom Mboya says.

"Certainly that is not what the average Kenyan would like to see and everyone is hoping that some kind of resolution will be found to this current crisis," he said.

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