NAIROBI, Kenya – Hundreds of young men armed with machetes cheered as a ruling party lawmaker called for attacks on opponents of a project to create part-time jobs for youths in his constituency.
Opposing such a program in a country where many are jobless might seem bizarre, along with the reason: Opponents suspected the jobs initiative was a cover for creating a militia. The hostile and threatening reaction might seem even more outrageous.
But they reflect long-simmering tribal tensions that are heating up again, eight years after they exploded into violence that left more than 1,000 people dead and more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. That frenzied outbreak of fighting came in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election.
The current threats of violence between opposition and government politicians and venomous exchanges by their supporters on social media have risen to such a level that the country's chief justice and church leaders are warning that it is reminiscent of rhetoric that was a prelude to the 2007-8 violence.
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga noted while presiding over a launch of a program that seeks to improve access to justice that "the drums of possible violence are being heard."
A little over a week ago, an opposition politician was videotaped telling a crowd of thousands in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum that blood must be spilled for opposition leader Raila Odinga to become president in the 2017 election.
The exchanges have mainly centered on President Uhuru Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe and communities that supported him, and those that align with Odinga, a Luo. Animosity between the Kikuyu and Luo goes back decades, precipitated by a falling out between Kenyatta's father Jomo — the founding president of Kenya — and Odinga's father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the country's first vice president after Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963.
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was opposed to, among other things, the re-distribution of land, which was seen to favor the Kikuyu elite. That fallout has shaped the political landscape in Kenya.
"Kenyans remain divided along ethnic lines," said the Rev. Peter Karanja, secretary general for the National Council of Churches in Kenya, an association of Protestant churches. "They identify with their tribes before their nation. Social media has been awash with hate messages that tell of a society that is on the edge."
Catholic Bishop Cornelius Korir, during a briefing on the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, urged Kenyans on Sunday to seek tolerance and peace.
"Our nation is facing (a) great trial that threatens to tear it apart," he said.
Opposition politician George Aladwa faces was charged on Friday with incitement to violence in relation to his public comments about bloodshed. He claims he was quoted out context.
Moses Kuria was the legislator from Gatundu South — the president's home area — who spoke to the youth with machetes in July. He also claims he was quoted out of context, but when the host of a TV program played a video of him urging attacks, he walked out of the studio. He has been charged in court with hate speech and incitement to violence.
But there appears to be virtual impunity for such offenses, said Francis Ole Kaparo, chairman of the National Integration and Cohesion Commission, which was formed to try to avoid a repeat of the 2007-08 post-election violence. He complained that those who spew hatred are never sent to prison.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, he said the local media, the police, the judiciary and people who cheer on the hatemongers all share blame for the situation.
"All of us must realize we have a big problem and deal with it," he said.
Kenyatta, who will run in 2017 for a second term, has condemned incitement and hate speech.
"As leaders, let us talk about things that will unite people," Kenyatta said in July.
Kenyatta, along with his deputy William Ruto, were charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for allegedly orchestrating the post-election violence in 2007-08 while on opposing sides. Charges against Kenyatta were dropped in December after the ICC prosecutor said there was a lack of evidence, which she blamed on witness intimidation and bribery.
ICC cases against Ruto and radio journalist Joshua Sang continue.