Numerous explanations have been proposed for the spread of misinformation in the world. The most common of these rumours are inaccurate or incomplete information or for vested interest. Kenya’s Tana Delta is a region rife with rumours and in the past two years Una Hakika has been mapping and countering misinformation that contributes to violence in the region. Interactions with the residents, interviews, and studies of the rumours have given the Una Hakika team great insights on why rumours have been so rampant in the area.

Divisive Rumours

During 2014 most of the rumours were either politically or ethnically oriented, partially because the effects of the violence that occurred in 2012 and 2013 that lead to the death of approximately 170 people was still being felt, though the effects slowly waned off as political tensions were reduced. Another reason was that ethnic violence made it impossible for the different communities, especially the Ormas and Pokomos to see eye-to-eye on most issues. One incident attesting to this occurred when a community was sought by another to make amendments after the violence. However, unknown to them, some people from the community that sought amendments had ulterior motives as they later attacked them. Such incidents fuel mistrust and make people more likely to accept and spread ethnically-oriented rumours.

The following are examples of rumours reported to Una Hakika in early 2014.

  • People are being secretly trained in the bush to attack Orma villages.
  • The results of the Tana River Judicial Commission of Inquiry are being deliberately repressed for unknown reasons.
  • Foreigners or “big fish” in the Kenyan government are conspiring to have the Orma and Pokomo wipe each other out to free up the land for investors.
  • Unknown pastoralists are attempting to create conflict between the Orma and Pokomo in order to claim abandoned lands.
  • It was reported by fishermen and people gathering firewood that a force of 200-300 Somali or Ethiopian mercenaries were being trained to attack the Pokomo.

In hindsight, it is clear that the rumours above drive division, mistrust, and hatred between communities and some may even be intentionally promoted by people seeking to achieve a goal. Fortunately, these specific rumours proved to be false and no such incidents were ever confirmed to have occurred.

Defensive Rumours

Further analysis of the motives for rumour propagation in the Tana Delta region revealed that rumours have also sometimes been used as a defence mechanism by their propagators in order to get the attention of the concerned government authorities and trigger a response. Some of the residents either did not feel adequately protected or harboured sentiments that local authorities were not doing enough to protect them from attacks so they propagated rumours to attract the attention that they felt was lacking. Surprisingly, the rumours appear to have been helpful since in some case the local authorities responded by setting up more police posts and security checkpoints, thus increasing the sense of security amongst the residents. The rationale behind this could be attributed to the fact that during the years 2012 and 2013 attacks still occurred despite government authorities and security forces being present. To make matters worse, the residents were not given trauma healing treatment, thus increasing their long-term sense of insecurity. Immediately after the violence, more police were posted in the area but were later withdrawn after a period of calmness. This removal of security forces inspired fear in the local population since people were apprehensive about violence occurring again. Thus, one response appears to have been spreading rumours likely to draw security personnel back to the area.

Examples of such rumours include the following.

  • The County Governor is behind the removal of the GSU camp in Chara location.
  • The government is collaborating with the Pokomo by placing security forces in close proximity to their communities (specifically Ngao) but not in Kipao.
  • The people of Ngao anticipate an attack by the Kipao people during the festive (Christmas) season -The rumour resulted from Ngao residents foreshadowing that they would be attacked based on rumours circulating that armed men were spotted in different areas and after noticing a sudden influx of strangers into Kipao. The fabricated narrative appears to have been intended to ensure that local authorities increased security during the holiday season so that people could celebrate without apprehension.

Offensive Rumours

Besides being used as an attention-seeking strategy for defensive purposes, rumours also appear to have been used as an offensive mechanism. In some cases, people have used rumours to increase surveillance or nudge authorities to take action against a rival community because the propagator suspected that an unlawful activity was being planned by the rival group. The result of such rumours has been increased fear and distrust between the contending communities. Some examples of this type of rumour are listed below along with explanations.

  • “In Kipao, fundraising efforts said to be for unpaid hospital bills are actually being used for the purchase of weapons.” – This may have been propagated in order to increase surveillance of the target group since the activity inspired curiosity from a different community.
  • “People are suspicious of fundraisers that were held on 15 June 2014 in Garsen. These were done by Ormas and Wardei for purpose of purchasing firearms.” – This case also appears to have been used to try and increase surveillance of the targeted group. The actual fact was that some of the fundraising was done by people who needed to take a child for heart surgery in India while another fundraiser was for a youth organization wanting to build a Madrassa in the village of Minjila.

Idle Rumours

Idleness also appears to be a contributor to the spread of rumours and since most of the youth in the Tana Delta are idle due to minimal development activities (pastoralism, fishing, and small-scale farming) and a high unemployment such that rumours become a part of their everyday life. Therefore with minimal economic activities and an active youth, discussions of rumours serve as a channel that keeps them busy and excited as they watch how the effect of the rumour will unfold. The following are examples of rumours thought to be inspired by idleness.

  • “The Una Hakika team is giving an allowance of KSh 2,000 as a sitting allowance for the ambassadors.” – A sitting allowance is money given to attendees of a meeting while ambassadors are volunteers of the Una Hakika project who verify information and serve as the gap between technology and people. This is one rumour propagated to see how events would unfold and what actions would be taken by people. This rumour would have caused division among the ambassadors and possibly jeopardised the project had we not countered it, as ambassadors would think some were benefitting while others weren’t.
  • “Everyone is supposed to switch off his or her phone as one huge heavenly body will cross at midnight and the radiations will adversely affect anyone whose phone is turned on.”

Mistrustful rumours

Another observation resulting from Una Hakika’s work has been that rumours not only contribute to distrust but also arise because of it as suspicious community members spread information about other ethnic groups. This was not unusual since any visitor to a village who came from a rival community was likely to be considered a spy or someone with ill intent. This is largely because unknown people in the region are generally associated with attacks. The following examples demonstrate examples of rumours inspired by distrust, including some about the Sentinel Project and Una Hakika.

  • “The Sentinel Project team members have been meeting the ex-prisoners and perpetrators of recent violence in Tana Delta in their recent visit in to the county.” – Una Hakika / Sentinel Project field visits involve meeting with both communities and public meetings are likely to include perpetrators of the violence or ex-prisoners from each community Such an incident could inspire rumours which are then exaggerated by intercommunal distrust or people who are unfamiliar with the visiting team.
  • “Una Hakika team members are training and recording information for the purposes of future arrests and prosecution.” – The Una Hakika team records information, such as during focus group discussions or through survey questionnaires, for research purposes but some may fear that the information will be used against people in the community.

Other examples include:

  • “Deputy President William Ruto’s visit to Garsen and his fundraiser for boda boda operators had a hidden agenda.”
  • “Kipao village is hosting strangers with questionable identities and who are not from Tana River.”

Radical  Rumours

The rise of radicalism, such as the influence of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) and the Al-Shabaab, has also inspired rumours. Tana River County, of which the Tana Delta is a part, borders Lamu and Garissa Counties, both of which experienced terror attacks in mid-2014 and early 2015 respectively. These incidents triggered cycles of rumours in the Tana Delta which related to terror and radicalised groups during those periods. The themes of these rumours revolved around blaming rival communities as sympathisers of a specific militant groups. For example, rumour reports from Pokomo communities suggested that Orma villages supported and facilitated the terror group Al-Shabaab while reports from the Orma communities implied that Pokomo residents backed the MRC, an outlawed separatist group operating in Kenya’s Coast region. These attacks also inspired rumours that nearly created a religious divide, with the mostly Christian Pokomos viewing the Muslim Ormas as belonging to Al-shabaab and Ormas making similar accusations about Pokomo MRC affiliations.

  • “An armed militia has been spotted in Kipini during the day near the riverbanks. People from Bakearafa village are fearful because the majority of them are Christians.” – This occurred two days after the Mpeketoni attacks where the Alshabbab attacked Mpketoni on 15th July 2014 killing over 60 people. This rumour shows religious divide and fear stemming from the attack.
  • “Kipini was under attack yesterday night.” – This was false since no such event occurred and the rumour report came a day after the previous rumour.
  • “Hindi trading center is under siege.” – What occurred was that gunmen attacked Hindi on 5 July 2014 and killed 11 people before fleeing but misinformation reached the people and changed the story.
  • “Pokomo leaders are meeting in Malindi to plan attacks.” – This rumour was reported two days after the attacks on 8 July 2014. No attack occurred after that, thus showing that some of the rumours were being used to attribute blame to ethnic rivals.
  • “Kikuyus have attacked Cushites in Mpeketoni and burnt one manyatta. This is believed to be Christian aggression against Muslims.” – This was reported one day after the Mpeketoni attacks and although demonstrations were held no reports of destruction were received.
  • “In Lamu there are placards saying that all Christians should vacate the area.” This did occur but it was hate leaflets and not placards which were used. The incident shows how the terror attacks emphasized the religious divide in a place where people of different religions coexist.
  • “Hate leaflets have been seen in Garsen with a message for all Christians to leave.” – This rumour was false and indicated that the Lamu terror attacks (the Mpeketoni and Hindi attacks) affected the Tana Delta region because of proximity between the three areas. Lamu and Tana Delta are surrounded by forests and it was feared that the attackers were hiding in the forests and could enter Tana Delta as well and attack.

Other examples include:

  • “The Pokomo are being supported by the Mombasa Republican Council.”
  • “Mombasa Republican Council are training in Kilifi Forest and their target is to attack the Tana Delta region.”

Ethnic Rumours

Lastly, Kenya as a whole has been experiencing negative ethnicity for a long time, which is evident from the most senior leaders right down to ordinary citizens, as is seen on social media. Hate speech and negative ethnicity has and is still present in Kenya’s mainstream and social media, with the Tana Delta being no exception. The Orma, Pokomo, Wardei, and other ethnic groups in Tana Delta experience negative ethnicity which has led to misinformation.

  • “The Delta Youth for Change group was about to be attacked in Kipao.” – Despite the fact that the youth group were there to perform peace dramas the residents resisted their entry to Kipao because some of the youth were from the Pokomo community.  Due to the distrust and bad blood between some members of the community, some villages are a no go zone for members of rival communities. This was as a result of negative ethnicity and mistrust due to the incident highlighted at the beginning of this article (a community was attacked after the rival community preached peace to them)

Below are some rumour reports or true events reported that show negative ethnicity that is rife in the region:

  • “One Pokomo woman said 3/4 of Orma women will die soon this led to serious  squabbles most people joined in and almost broke out into a fight” – true event
  • “A primary school is constructed with Constituency Development Funds which is raising eyebrows in the Kilelengwani side as it is a sign of ethnic division and negative independence because there is an existing primary school for both villages.”-true event
  • “Rising tension in Kipini between Cushites and Bajuni due to increase in animals theft the Bajuni suspect the Cushites are the thieves” – unverifiable sentiment but incidences were on the rise
  • “There are some form of revenge carried out by Ormas to the Pokomo and farmers” – unverifiable sentiment
  • “A pastoralist was injured at Bandi by Pokomo farmers after he set his cattle to graze on a farmer’s crops. A revenge mission is said will be carried out soon to compensate for the injured man.”unverifiable sentiment

The upcoming election in 2017 will present a valuable opportunity to see what kind of rumours propagate in the Tana Delta and the reason behind them while conducting a comparative analysis. The results of such research on the root causes of rumours and the reasons why they are spread will enable leaders, NGOs, peace committees, and other stakeholders to devise mechanisms for reducing the impact of rumours and consequences while mitigating fear and building trust between rival ethnic groups.