What role should the U.S. play in resolving the election crisis in Kenya? This is the question asked by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing held this past Thursday.
Witnesses included Jendayi Frazer (the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department), political scientist Joel Barkan, and representatives from USAID, Human Rights Watch, and ICG. The full audio file of the hearing is here.
First, a digression and a confession: I am no fan of Jendayi Frazer. It was she that reportedly overruled her advisers at State and issued the initial congratulation to Kibaki on his ‘victory’ in the flawed December poll–a congratulation the Embassy awkwardly ‘modified’ (read: withdrew) a few days later.
As with U.S. policy towards Uganda (and elsewhere), support for allies in the war on terror trumps the State Department’s support for true democratic reform in Africa. The U.S. forgives African leaders like Kibaki and Museveni their sins in return for continued security cooperation. In my mind, the crisis in Kenya is in part a reflection of this absence of international accountability.
Apparently I am not alone. Joel Barkan’s thoughtful testimony to the Senate committee is well worth reading. A few points that struck me as especially provocative:
- A history refresher: in the 2002 elections Raila Odinga campaigned tirelessly for Kibaki, and arguably won him the election. But after their coalition’s victory, Kibaki’s government was dominated by a small number of elderly men from his own Kikuyu ethnic group, rather than his coalition partner Odinga.
- The divide in Kenyan politics is not merely ethnic but also generational (a clever point I have not heard elsewhere).
- Further, while the initial violence immediately following the election may have been spontaneous, it is clear (says Barkan) that most of the present violence is organized, politically motivated and conducted by informal militias and gangs.
- The international community was overconfident in how the election would unfold, and failed in several specific ways: they overlooked the failure to purge the register of voters of deceased voters, inflation registers by up to ten percent; they placed too much emphasis on the Chairman of the Election Commission rather than reform of the institution as a whole; and they failed to compensate for Kenyan civil society’s diminished observation capabilities since the last election. He singles out for special criticism the slow U.S. response to the flawed election and the harm caused by Frazer’s then hasty endorsement of Kibaki.
- The election fraud committed by supporters of Kibaki was (in Barkan’s opinion) far greater than that committed by Odinga. It is impossible for Kibaki decisively won the election.
- But neither can Odinga claim more than 46 percent of the vote share, meaning that neither party can govern by itself. A coalition is therefore imperative.
- A coalition does not mean a power-sharing agreement. This has not worked in the past. What is needed is deeper institutional reform, including a long awaited new constitution.
- The key questions such a constitution must address are how to ensure free and fair future elections, how to restore checks and balances in the legislative and executive system, and whether and how to decentralize power in a federal system.
- The main impediment to resolution are the small groups of “hardliners” in both camps who still do not accept the need for true power-sharing to resolve the crisis (especially in Kibaki’s party).
Barkan’s emphasis on generation divides, hardliners holding on to power, and the unresolved Constitutional debate seem to me to be much more plausible than Jendayi Frazer’s facile focus on historic ethnic cleavages as the cause of the election fraud and violence.
Barkan’s recommendation for the U.S. government: (1) support for Kofi Annan’s ongoing negotiations and a power-sharing agreement; (2) financial and technical support for constitutional reform; and (3) extremely hard pressure–even asset freezes and travel bans–on hardliners in both groups and media broadcasting hateful messages. Suspension of foreign aid should be a last resort.
I was happy to see Frazer echoing Barkan’s call for a power-sharing agreement. But I still fear that a set of narrow U.S. anti-terror priorities could embolden Kibaki and the hardliners around him to resist compromise. Yet another disappointing day in American diplomacy.