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Online war erupts in Kenya after peaceful vote

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 5:54pm  ET

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 6, 2013 file photo, a man standing near to pro-peace graffiti checks his mobile phone in Kibera, Africa's largest slum, in Nairobi, Kenya. Tribal lines are being drawn over who won Kenya's presidential election and unlike the bloody violence that scarred the country five years ago, this time the only fighting is online. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

TOM ODULA
Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- Tribal lines are being drawn over who won Kenya's presidential election. But unlike the bloody violence that scarred the country five years ago, this time the only fighting is online.

Machete strikes and bows and arrows are being replaced by bitter Tweets and angry status updates.

The exchange of barbs between supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta -- who was named the winner of the March 4 election with 50.07 percent of the vote -- and his closest competitor, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has degenerated into expletive-filled fights in social media that have the government worried.

The Ministry of Information and Communications said this week that it has been unable to contain "the ugly messages of hate and negative ethnicity" online. It said many of the messages qualify as hate speech.

Some officials worry that the virtual feuding could trigger real-life fighting.

"The outrage is becoming wider and the tension is palpable. It's going to erode all our efforts of building national cohesion," Milly Lwanga, vice chair of the government-funded National Cohesion and Integration Commission, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "The buildup of tension, it's like a room where gas is leaking slowly and then eventually there will be something small to ignite it and people will wonder where the explosion came from."

After Kenya's disputed presidential vote in late 2007, Odinga's supporters took to the streets. Tribal violence erupted, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 people.

Odinga's camp said the prime minister will file a petition with the Supreme Court on Friday to overturn the election results. Odinga alleges the election was rigged.

"We are dealing with criminals who should not be in State House but in prison," Odinga said Thursday of his opponents. But, significantly, he is urging his supporters to stay calm as his case is heard in court.

No major violence has been reported, but the interactions are ugly online. Ethnic allegiances are exposed and ridiculed. Kenyatta's tribe -- the Kikuyus -- and Odinga's tribe -- the Luos -- clashed violently five years ago.

"Mmm! Kikuyus r thieves by default. There is nowhere on the planet earth, where a kikuyu works without stealing. Its embedded in their DNA. Kill all of them n Kenya will be a pleasant country to live in," a post on Facebook by one user, Phil Miser, read.

A user named Susan Karanja replied to the tribal taunt from Miser: "We may be thieves but we are also enterprising. No wonder we employ u to use (your) brains in our jobs coz u dont use (yours) to better (your) lives n that's the way it is. We run u not vice versa so swallow it."

One popular online forum in Kenya, mashada.com, was taken offline before the election, presumably because of hate-filled postings on the site. A Facebook group called Stop Raila Odinga Now has more than 20,000 members. One recent comment was addressed to Luos and Kambas, another ethnic group: "All your provinces do is give this nation violence, war, thieves, mad people and whores."

Gordon Mutugi, a 31-year-old public relations specialist, said that many people have stopped following him on Twitter because of his support for Kenyatta. Mutugi said many of his followers have branded him a tribalist.

The hate messages are being exchanged mainly between members of three communities, said Lwanga. The Kikuyus, the Luos and the Kalenjins, the tribe of William Ruto, Kenyatta's running mate. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has bloggers monitoring the discussions who interject with "sober" comments to try to calm the exchanges down, Lwanga said.

In 2007, Kenyans sent out hateful phone text messages but it was before social media, such as Twitter, had really taken hold, she said.

Though Kenyan leaders appear to have prevented a repeat of the 2007-08 violence this election -- at least so far -- the way voters cast ballots remained largely the same: Kenyatta won overwhelming support from Kikuyus and practically none from Luos. It was the same -- in reverse -- for Odinga.

"It is a reflection of the way campaigns were conducted to galvanize the support around one tribal affiliation," Lwanga said.

Lwanga said the national cohesion commission is trying to trace people who post hate messages so that they are prosecuted. Hate speech carries a fine of around $12,000 or imprisonment for up to three years, or both. Recently the government has made all Kenyans register their phone numbers with the Communication Commission of Kenya, which should make it easier to track perpetrators. She said her group also tried working with the National Police Service's Cyber Crime Unit to block sites filled with hate speech but realized it was not working because the perpetrators would set up another site almost immediately.

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