Kenya: The “Rwanda Scenario” Needs Reality Testing

Too often, it is the media-created event to which people respond rather than the objective situation itself, as was the case when media provoked anxiety resulted in massive public rejection of food products reported as potentially related to an outbreak. Development of new approaches in mass communication, most recently the Internet, increase the ability to enhance outbreaks through communication. –Boss, Leslie P., “Epidemic Hysteria: A Review of the Published Literature” in Epidemiologic Reviews, Vol. 19, No. 2.

“There have been deaths all over the country,” Odinga told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “And the violence clearly originates from the police. They have shot dead innocent people: in Kisumu, in Eldoret, in Kericho.”

Kenya[‘s …] police force falls well short of the standards of accountability that the democratic ideals of its country demand. Mired in its colonial history, and the political context in which it developed, the Kenyan police force has been charged with corruption, misuse of force and abuse of due process. Kenya’s men and women associate the police with impunity, secrecy and violence. Illegitimate political interference is entrenched by the law — for example, the President has the right to hire and fire the head of the police force. —“The Police, The People, The Politics: Police Accountability in Kenya” (2006, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Kenya Human Rights Commission)

Violence Flares After Disputed Election: Over 120 Killed in Kenya Clashes: SPIEGEL ONLINE raises a very important question about the situation in Kenya.

There is a news blackout. Foreign reporters are relying heavily on anonymous police sources to characterize events. Illegitimate political interference in and by Kenyan police is an observed problem with an extensive history.

And there are charges that police are responsible for a great deal of the indiscriminate violence we are seeing — although those anonymous police sources are telling another story.

A follow-up to

The vast majority of commercial news coverage is now telling a story about a “tribal meltdown” there which, we are told, is beginning to resemble a Rwanda scenario.

Time magazine, most notably:

Will Kenya’s Vote Lead to Tribal War?

The lede:

Tribal violence erupted across Kenya Monday, claiming the lives of at least 124 people …

Humanitarian crises are predicted. Urgent calls to restore order are being heard. Fuzzily sourced stories of AK-47-armed militias loom menacingly — although militia groups do exist in Kenya, according to a 2006 report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative on police accountability in Kenya.

All kinds of unsubstantiated stories.

A report I just read, for example, quotes an anonymous “senior police official” — anonymous for “fear of reprisals” — to precisely that effect.

He claims that “ethnic cleansing” is underway. On a massive scale.

But is it really? What is the word of honor of a senior Kenyan police official, commenting off the record, worth, anyway?

What about this alternative lede: “Massive police repression in support of the incumbent regime erupted across Kenya on Monday, killing hundreds?”

And this alternative headline: “Will Kenya’s Fraudulent Elections Lead to a Police State?” Both propositions need reality-testing.

An important backgrounder bearing on the police state hypothesis:

Meanwhile, buzz-journalism pundits like Andrew Sullivan are endorsing the “tribal meltdown” theory:

Under these circumstances, tribalism flares, as it has in Iraq

Sullivan also suggests that reading blogs is the best way of informing oneself about the situation:

The best global round-up is, as usual, at Global Voices. You’ll learn more nuance and diversity of view from the posts of Kenyan bloggers than from the MSM.

This is terrible advice. Because Global Voices Online’s view of “diversity of views” tends to mean giving equal time to nonsense.

It has a track record of providing equal time to rumors, disinformation and David “Fear and Misinformation Abound” Sasaki-style moral panic.

Meanhile, a recent BBC survey showed that Kenyans tend to express a high degree of faith in the commitment of their press to professionalism, accuracy and fairness.

Which is why telling readers not to rely on professional, critical information-gatherers, but rather on Internet rumor mills, seems like very bad advice to me. This is no time to be tuning in the buzz-machines to pool fear, uncertainty and doubt. This is a time to be pooling information from reliable sources.

“Do not listen to the MSM” is precisely the argument used by the inciters of the Rwandan genocide, recall, as noted by Kristin M. Lord, in The Perils and Promise of Global Transparency.

Remember the rumor, spread by a Rwandan radio station, that the Tutsis had already killed 300,000 Hutus?

Before the genocide began, Rwandans chose to listen to RTLM in a relatively open and competitive media environment. After the genocide began, however, nearly all other media were silenced, which severely curtailed domestic transparency. Some Rwandans with short-wave radios could hear contesting descriptions of events, but RTLM challenged outside sources of information, telling Rwandans to ignore the “biased and ill-informed” reports. C. Kellow and H. Stevens cite the following RTLM announcement broadcast on May 14, 1994:

The RTLM broadcast in question:

This is nothing but propaganda from White people; we are used to it. However, we can still maintain that the inkotanyi [Tutsi cockroaches], wherever they have gone, have massacred the Hutus … after the 200,000 killed, the journalists say that the numbers rise to 500,000 killed. Where do these other 300,000 come from? These other 300,000 are without a doubt Hutu … This war we are fighting is an important one … it is, in fact, a war of extermination, a war started by the inkotanyi — because it is they who have started with the purpose of exterminating the Hutu.

Professional journalism is precisely what it is needed at this point, not rumor mills, gabbling punditry or frightened people who are not in position to do anything but share with one another that they have no idea what is going on, and have no way of finding out.

The Times man in Nairobi reported earlier today, for example, that he has witnessed cases of ethnic conflict notably not busting out.

I am waiting to hear more from him on that point. It is an important one.

Because other hard news sources are telling another story than that of the apocalyptic “Rwanda scenario” at this point: That the bulk of the violence is being perpetrated by the state, and specifically by the police, under orders from the incumbent government.

This is a government, after all, which admitted it used police to intimidate the East African Standard last year. The Nation at the time:

National Security Minister John Michuki shocked Kenyans yesterday when he arrogantly admitted the government was responsible for state-sponsored terror against The Standard Group, ascribing it to ‘national security’… This was not a security operation, this was a feudal case of state terrorism.

The al-Jazeera report shown above, for example, passes along such charges from persons interviewed on the scene. Rapes by police. Shooting of unarmed persons by police. The challenger makes this claim as well:

“There have been deaths all over the country,” Odinga told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “And the violence clearly originates from the police. They have shot dead innocent people: in Kisumu, in Eldoret, in Kericho.”

Is that true? Eldoret is reportedly the scene of the most shocking incident reported so far — a reported mob burning of a church.

It was just that incident that the anonymous police source described as a symptom of generalized “ethnic cleansing”!

What role did the police play at that location? If they were on the scene, why did they not use force to prevent the incident

Are police really merely responding, proportionally and responsibly, of necessity, to spontaneous violence?

Or are they instigating it, as charged? Or what? All these conflicting accounts need to be followed upon and substantiated or debunked. By professionals who know what they are doing — who know how to boil incomplete information into something fit for human consumption.

There are also press reports that the same Minister, Michuki, has ordered police to shoot all protesters and curfew violators — and we already know that he imposed a press blackout that has been roundly condemned by the international community.

The Hindu, for example:

Three police officers said independently that they had been ordered to shoot to kill to stop the rioters. “Yes there is a shoot to kill order,” said one police official, who like the others asked that his name not be used because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Press blackout. Police operating in a state of exception. Do the math.

And then press reports citing anonymous “senior police officials” who are spreading moral panic over a “Rwanda scenario.”

Might this not be a strategy for justifying the state of exception allegedly needed to stem this alleged “Rwanda scenario”? Which coincidentally would consolidate the incumbent’s hold on power?

The minister ordering the police to shoot to kill was just voted out of office, for example. Do you think that might cast some small shadow of a doubt on his motives in giving the order?

Who is doing what to whom, and why? All this new coverage that throws in the towel on the question of agency — “violence has broken out, violence is killing people” — is contributing to the domino effect of moral nonreponsibility. It is setting us for a story in which no one can be held responsible. Which turns out to be awfully convenient for those responsible.

How credible should we assume anonymous Kenyan police sources are at this point, when operating under a press blackout under the orders of this Michuki gentleman?

There is rumor circulating now, for example — totally unconfirmed, mind you — according to which Kenyan RSU police have to obey that “shoot to kill” order, which is now being carried out by Ugandan RSU.

Kikuyu are reportedly seeking refuge in Uganda, and meetings between security forces of the two neighbors are being reported.

In short, there are at least two stories being told here, one much, much more loudly and insistently than the other.

  1. The “Rwanda” or “tribal meltdown” scenario
  2. The “police state” scenario

Both need to be thoroughly reality-tested.

And in doing so, the relative credibility of (1) police sources, operating in a news blackout, but commenting off the record to foreign journalists, and (2) the local news media that has been blacked out by the police needs to be considered as well.

Let me upload that Commonwealth report for you, from 2006.

It summarizes the situation as follows:

Kenyans view their police force in one of two ways. First, they see it as an organisation in such a corrupt state that it is little more than an institutionalised extortion racket, that uses illegal and violent methods to uphold the status quo and is only paying lip service to reform initiatives. Alternatively, they see it as an institution that is struggling to reform itself and to overcome its history, to become a disciplined and law-abiding police service more suited to the democracy in which it now exists.

Does the Kenyan police service now exist in a democracy?

It does not seem so.

It seems to exist in an emerging hog heaven of the hard men, in fact.

To be continued.

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