Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Politicians must denounce their violent supporters

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 20 January 2013

As we enter the home stretch towards the epochal General Election in March, many events are taking place that give the lie to the assumption that we are a functioning democracy. Some indicators have already emerged that we are most likely just paying lip-service to the concept of democracy while secretly wishing we could rig the system such that no matter what happens, our preferred candidate comes out on top.

Firstly, campaign violence is rearing its ugly head again. People are being attacked, maimed and even killed in the guise of campaign activity. Five years ago I argued in the Daily Nation that giving crime labels such as “political violence” only “legitimises crime and allows people to carry out barbaric acts without fearing the repercussions”. In that article, I was warning about the risk of escalation of conflict beyond that which is manageable if we allowed politics to be the excuse for violence.

I argued for the “strict, impartial and severe application of the law” in order to deter hooligans who wore political masks and went out to harm others, knowing that their political god-fathers would raise a ruckus if the law took its course. I regret that I have to repeat this warning as we march towards the elections.

Secondly, political arguments are becoming more and more shrill, with the tribal essence driving it all becoming more and more evident. 

Tribal innuendo

A recent opinion poll resulted in the CEO of the polling company being called a tribalist because her polls showed that a candidate who might share her ethnicity was leading. The resulting insults and both sexist and tribal innuendo would make anyone who knows how violence is prepared cringe.

We know from history that before all-out violence breaks out, the potential perpetrators must be psychologically prepared for it. This is often done by gradually softening them and reducing the innate human aversion to shedding human blood, often by portraying the potential targets as something less than human. It begins by showing examples of evil people within the target group, and both personalising and magnifying the potential harm posed by them. 

The message

Next, their evil deeds are compared to the behaviour of animals and, gradually, the message is subtly passed that it is okay to attack them whenever one gets an opportunity. Once the ground has been prepared thus, it takes only a small infraction for the potential perpetrators to be aroused into “righteous anger” that sends them into a genocidal frenzy, which eventually begins to feed off itself.

The perpetrators go about their grim business without a care, and if you confront them later, they may either explain it away as something that was necessary at that time, or they may just exclaim that they did not know what they were doing then.

The emergence of tribal “Councils of Elders” that give political edicts with threats of damnation to “their people” will only serve to legitimise any dehumanisation of the opponent, changing elections into a matter of life and death for most of those involved. For the sake of our children’s future, we must stop this jingoistic nonsense.

I challenge all the political party leaders to denounce any of their supporters who engage in violent acts, and to allow law enforcers to do their job. 

Dr Atwoli is secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and senior lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine.; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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