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On Eve of Elections, Kenya Prays History Won't Repeat Itself
The Washington Diplomat / March 2013

By Larry Luxner

It’s been five years since Kenya was gripped by election-related violence that plunged East Africa’s most stable, well-developed democracy into a horrific nightmare of ethnic barbarism. Over a two-month period, more than 1,100 people were killed and up to 600,000 were displaced from their homes.

The bloodletting ended only after the two sides — led by President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger, Raila Odinga — signed a deal that had been negotiated by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Known as the National Accord, the pact elevated Odinga to the post of prime minister and called for the drafting of a new constitution to address the root causes of the conflict.

That constitution, which overwhelmingly passed in a peaceful August 2010 referendum, curbs the powers of the presidency to wean Kenya off its zero-sum political system — blamed for fueling corruption at the top echelons of government.

The question on everyone’s minds now is straightforward: Will Kenya, one of Africa’s most vital economies, be able to avoid violence as voters go to the polls March 4 and again on April 11 to elect a president, 384 members of a new bicameral legislature, 47 governors and 47 county assemblies?

Elkanah Odembo Absalom, Kenya’s ambassador in Washington, insists the answer is yes.

“I’m very positive about the elections,” Odembo told The Washington Diplomat last month. “We’ve done many things to mitigate and prevent what happened in 2007.”

Indeed, as a January 2013 report by the International Crisis Group noted, “New voting rules require the president to win more than half the votes and enjoy wider geographic support. Power is being devolved to 47 counties, each of which will elect a governor, senator and local assembly. Despite recent mishaps, the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) still enjoys public trust. Judicial reform, including the appointment of a respected new chief justice, also augurs well for a more robust response to electoral fraud and disputes.”

But the same report said these new institutions “have their work cut out” for them. Analysts who know the region agree.

Africa expert Joel D. Barkan, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, warns that Kenya could very well see a repeat of the chaos that brought the linchpin East African nation to its knees. He calls the upcoming elections “arguably the most important and complex” since Kenya’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.

“If the elections are marred by widespread violence and perceived as illegitimate by the Kenyan public, they are likely to plunge the country into a renewed period of political instability and set back Kenya’s democratic advance,” Barkan wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations briefing published earlier this year. “A breakdown in the electoral process will also do serious harm to Kenya’s economy, which has been performing well in recent years.”

Any prolonged crisis in Kenya will also have severe repercussions for the neighborhood, Barkan warned.

“In particular, two major U.S. foreign policy goals in the region — preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and nurturing peace between Sudan and South Sudan — could be compromised. The United States, therefore, should work expeditiously with all parties concerned to ensure that the forthcoming elections are peaceful, free and fair.”

The stakes are so high that in early February, the White House posted a YouTube message from President Obama — whose father was born and raised in the village of Nyang’oma Kogelo — to the country’s 43 million inhabitants, urging them not to allow history to repeat itself.

“Kenya must reject intimidation and violence, and allow a free and fair vote,” said the president, beginning and ending his 60-second video message with traditional greetings in Swahili. “Kenyans must resolve disputes in the courts, not in the streets. Above all, the people of Kenya must come together before and after the election to carry on the work of building your country.”

Two candidates have emerged as frontrunners in the March 4 election. The first is Prime Minister Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe (which constitutes about 10 percent of Kenya’s population) and head of the Orange Democratic Movement. The other is Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu (the leading ethnic group, with 21 percent of the population) and leader of the National Alliance; current President Kibaki is stepping down after two terms. Because half a dozen minor candidates are also in the race, neither man might win an outright majority — triggering the April 11 runoff election.

Complicating the already-complex vote is the fact that Kenya’s ethnic divisions have become internationalized.

“The International Criminal Court ruled that four prominent Kenyans should be tried for crimes against humanity for violence associated with the 2007 elections, including murder. Two of these individuals — Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto — are prominent politicians,” Robert B. Lloyd, coordinator of the international studies program at California’s Pepperdine University, told The Diplomat.

Kenyatta, one of Kenya’s wealthiest men and son of its founding president, and Ruto, a former education minister and prominent member of the Kalenjin ethnic group, are accused of perpetrating interethnic violence between Kikuyus and Kalenjins following the 2007 elections.

“The ICC trials are currently scheduled to begin in April, injecting fresh uncertainty into the elections process and in many ways conflating issues of the 2007 and 2013 elections into a compressed timeframe,” said Lloyd, noting that many of the individuals, underlying conditions and ethnic tensions that sparked the 2007-08 unrest have not been fully addressed.

Kenyan law does not ban either Kenyatta or Ruto from running for office, and both men have said the case would not hinder them from running the country if they won, though no sitting head of state has ever fought charges in a drawn-out ICC trial.

“Their trials are scheduled to begin on April 10 and April 11, respectively, but neither is likely to travel to The Hague if they emerge victorious in the first round or are finalists in the second. Indeed, one major purpose of their alliance is to avoid trial,” Barkan observed.

“Their alliance also, ironically, raises the prospects for peace during this election cycle between their respective ethnic groups, the Kalenjins and the Kikuyus, who viciously attacked each other in 2007. The election of Kenyatta and Ruto, however, would most likely result in the United States, European Union states and others that support the ICC process shunning them diplomatically. This could invoke a potentially hostile response from Kenyatta and Ruto and ultimately lead to Kenya’s increased international isolation.”

Odembo, who was only 5 years old when Kenya declared its independence half a century ago, served as Kenya’s ambassador to France before his posting to Washington in September 2010. Although born and raised in Nairobi, he knows the United States quite well, having earned a degree in biology from Maine’s Bowdoin College, as well as a master’s in epidemiology from the University of Texas in Houston.

Odembo has represented a number of NGOs including the Ufadhili Trust, a Kenyan institution that promotes philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. It was in that context five years ago, as Kenyans prepared to go to the ballot box, that Odembo served as a community organizer with Ufadhili (a Swahili word meaning “giving unto others”).

Hopes were high that the vote would be a success. In 2002, President Daniel Arap Moi peacefully relinquished power after 24 years in office. Civil society groups like Odembo’s Ufadhili Trust were allowed to operate and the press was freely covering elections in which the candidates were offering distinct, serious policy platforms.

But things didn’t turn out the way everyone expected.

“Kenyans felt the elections had been stolen from them,” said Odembo,recently interviewed at Kenya’s embassy on R Street, just off Dupont Circle. “It was very closely contested, and until the last minute, it was fairly clear that the individual in the lead [Raila Odinga] would win. Then the electoral commission announced that someone else, Mwai Kibaki — the man who is now the president — had won the election.”

All along, the ambassador recalled, the people had been told that Odinga was ahead.

“Then they went quiet and slowed down their reporting, and people started getting anxious. When the results were finally announced, the party that had won a larger number of seats in Parliament felt the electoral commission had not been independent, and called on their supporters to demonstrate. That’s when things started getting bad. The Orange Democratic Movement felt there was no recourse in the judiciary because the judiciary was handpicked by the president. They said going to court would be a waste of time because they weren’t going to get a fair hearing.”

Protests by Odinga’s Luo tribe and by other groups exploded into violence following the government’s hasty declaration of Kibaki as the winner. International observers widely described the vote as flawed and rife with irregularities. Kenya’s ambassador in Washington at the time, Peter N.R.O. Ogego, said the election-related atrocities left him and his embassy staff in “shock.”

Odembo said tensions quickly spilled out into the slums of Nairobi, as well as remote villages, where machete-wielding mobs went on house-burning rampages and government security forces allegedly shot demonstrators to death.

“The violence was all over,” he said. “We saw where people had been physically attacked during the fighting. I went to a church in Eldoret where more than 20 people had been burned alive.”

Odembo concedes that naturally, bitterness lingers from the horrific events of 2007-08.

“We formed a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission as a result of the recommendations made following the post-election violence. We need to get Kenyans to open up and talk about these issues of ethnicity and tribalism.”

In addition, he said, “The commission has been monitoring hate speech. We believe some of what we saw was fueled by politicians who went around inciting communities on both sides, whipping up emotions. Radio stations got people all worked up, in languages that others couldn’t understand.”

Ahead of the March vote, the country held a first-ever presidential debate in which the candidates, including Odinga and Kenyatta, decried Kenya’s legacy of bitter ethnic divisions and pledged not to exploit those divisions.

Many Kenyans in fact are doing whatever they can to prevent another explosion of ethnic rage that nearly caused the country’s economy to collapse, shaking foreign investors’ confidence.

“At the end of 2007, our economy was growing at almost 7 percent,” Odembo said. “But after the election violence, it took a dive down to 3 percent, and for the rest of 2008, we did not get beyond 4 percent” — a serious problem in a country whose leaders say it needs sustained annual GDP growth of 10 percent for at least 15 years to become a middle-income nation.

The government has taken steps to restart its earlier economic momentum and achieve middle-income status. Recently, it announced plans for a $14.5 billion information technology hub outside the capital of Nairobi. The hope is that Konza Technology City will generate more than 200,000 jobs by 2030 and become “Africa’s silicon savannah.”

Indeed, Kenya’s ambitious economic growth — fueled in part by a highly successful tourism industry — has made it an oasis of prosperity in a rough neighborhood. Recently, the government stepped up its regional profile by sending troops to fight Islamist al-Shabaab militants in Somalia after a wave of border kidnappings tarnished Kenya’s reputation as a tourist destination.

By helping to stabilize its perpetually lawless neighbor, Kenya’s military intervention — now under the aegis of the U.N.-authorized African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) — could also help improve Kenya’s own economic prospects. The successful offensive that drove al-Shabaab rebels out of the key Somali port of Kismayo, for example, could curtail piracy in the region — thereby reducing piracy-related maritime security costs Kenya had incurred.

On the flip side, however, Kenya’s Somali involvement has made it a target for al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab fighters, who’ve claimed credit for a number of small-scale but jarring attacks on Kenyan soil, including deadly grenade attacks on a Mombasa bar and a church in Nairobi. Kenya is also home to a sizeable population of Somali refugees — along with some 40 ethnic groups, a tinderbox that has led to bloody clashes over the years.

Most recently in January, nearly a dozen people were killed in a village attack thought to be the result of a rivalry between the Pokomo and Orma ethnic groups. Analysts such as Donovan Chau, a political science professor at California State University-San Bernardino, fear that the government isn’t doing enough to tackle these long-simmering ethnic rivalries, which could resurface during the election.

“Violence is still a likelihood, and the reason is that the ethnic divides in Kenya remain,” explained Chau, author of numerous reports on security in East Africa. “The two leading candidates represent the traditional ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo. This is the divide we saw back in the early 1960s, between Uhuru’s father [Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president] and Raila’s father [Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the country’s first vice president]. In the worst-case scenario, if violence this time exceeds what happened in 2007-08, that would greatly hamper our efforts to combat terrorism in East Africa.”

Chau says the reforms enacted under Kenya’s 2010 constitution are “definitely positive developments for which the political leadership should be commended” — but that there are still flaws.

“The electoral commission is relatively weak. It really doesn’t have the capability to prevent violence which would originate from the villages anyway,” he told The Diplomat. “While these changes are important, they don’t get at the root of the problem, which is the entrenched nature of corruption. And I don’t think the new constitution can do away with the legacy of ethnic tension. It’s basically the nature of Kenya.”

The ambassador dismisses the notion that ethnic tensions are ingrained in Kenyan society, although he admits serious mistakes were made in the 2007 election.

“The excessive powers that existed in the executive arm of government contributed to the problems we saw, especially the poor management of the elections by the Electoral Commission of Kenya, which we disbanded a year after the elections. It had 15 commissioners who had been handpicked by the president, so their loyalty obviously was to the president. They were not in a position to be neutral.”

Odembo insists that the newly established Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is relatively corruption-free and ready for the March 4 vote.

“Now we have a very independent electoral commission. They were vetted through a hearing process in Parliament,” he said. “Their responsibility is to plan and manage the elections, which includes registering voters. They are also responsible for establishing electoral boundaries, which was another reason we had issues. Communities were competing across boundaries.”

However, Barkan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies doesn’t think the IEBC is ready for the elections at all. He says that due to technical issues and delays in getting required equipment, the commission was two months behind in completing voter registration. As a result, it registered only 14.4 million, or 69 percent, of the more than 21 million Kenyans eligible to vote. He said the IEBC is also responsible for educating voters on a particularly complex ballot, since Kenyans will be voting for six offices for the first time.

“Most important, the commission must address the principal failure of the 2007 elections by carrying out an accurate transmission and tabulation of the votes from thousands of polling stations to its results reporting center in Nairobi and by making a timely announcement of the results,” he wrote. “Any further delays or missteps in meeting these challenges could force a postponement and/or undermine the legitimacy of the elections.”

Among U.S. observers of this election are the Atlanta-based Carter Center — led by former President Jimmy Carter himself — along with three Washington-based NGOs: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. The 27-member EU will also send election monitors, as will the African Union.

“As ambassador, I’ve been communicating with people here in Washington about how we’re preparing for the elections,” said Odembo, who will be at his desk on March 4, monitoring events back home minute by minute. “My hope is to encourage a visit by senior-level U.S. officials to reinforce the importance of having a free, fair, credible and peaceful election. That’s important not just for Kenya but for all of East Africa.” Barkan says Washington should “impress upon Nairobi” the importance of taking steps to prevent election violence — and provide a clear warning that it will continue to support any investigations and ICC prosecutions if atrocities are committed again.

“The United States and others may have limited leverage over Kenya’s domestic politics, but they are not without options that would significantly improve the prospects for acceptable elections and help avert a major crisis,” he concluded, warning that with time running out, “Washington must intensify its engagement or forsake its opportunity to make a difference.”

The increased attention that the world is paying to Kenya’s elections this time around may prevent tensions from spiraling out of control, says Lloyd of Pepperdine University, noting that “although some of the enabling factors for the violence remain, there will be much greater domestic and international scrutiny of Kenya in the March 2013 elections.”

But he also warns: “Even if the election turns out to be a peaceful affair, Kenya remains a fragile state with significant challenges to political reform, accountability and stability.”

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