The role of the U.S. in the Kenya election crisis

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.

4 thoughts on “The role of the U.S. in the Kenya election crisis

  1. I don’t understand why nobody is willing to condemn Kibaki and declare that he is the rightful loser and should step down. Everyone seems to agree that his party lost the election, so why the emphasis on compromise? He should be condemned outright. The early American congratulation is a disgrace.

    The travel ban on people from both sides also incorrectly implies that the warring parties are at equal fault in the current crisis. And why on earth does the travel ban not include Kibaki?

    While the front page tales of violence are clearly despicable, should we not expect violence from a group that has been marginalized for decades under the promise of transfer of power following a victorious election, and then had that promise revoked? What should we expect of those from whom the election was stolen, besides violence? And don’t say peaceful protest, unless you can come up with an example of a minority ethnic group that has overturned a stolen election through peaceful protest. Especially in Africa, and especially after the U.S. congratulated the so-called winners.

    Despots around the world should take heart from the international community’s refusal to choose sides in Kenya.

  2. I think you’re right, but wasn’t it the 2005 Ethiopian election which was most responsible for setting in place the western policy and thereby set the stage for this kind of carry-on? I guess we shouldn’t be shocked that politicians respond to incentives too.

  3. The reason nobody is willing to say Kibaki lost is because he probably did not. Here are a few facts that you did not know.
    1. PNU agents were barred from conducting their work in ODM strongholds as the constitution demands.
    2. Nobody wants to endorse ODM as winners which may endorse their bloody plans.
    3. Kikuyus and Kibaki have not, as is widely held in the media, been lording over the economy. Kenya has been free for 44 years this year and 24 of those have been under President Moi who is a Kalenjin. The most prosperous businesses then were owned by Asians. Kalenjins were not as prosperous though their elite had access to a lot of resources which they plundered hence messing up the economy.
    4. Kenyatta, the first president did not move truck loads of Kikuyus to settle them elsewhere. The Kikuyus who were settled in Riftvalley and Coast were actually Kenyans who were in British run concentration camps. When released, they didn’t have a place to go and therefore they were given loans to purchase land. They did, worked hard and made a little money.
    5. Kibaki probably won.

  4. Its interesting to ponder what AFRICOM could/would have done differently if it were established when this election violence went down. Perhaps its impossible because we lack a clear picture of what AFRICOM will be.