A Step Backward in Kenya

A Step Backward in Kenya

The Bush administration has been saying that Kenyans should just accept the results of their disputed elections and move on. They deserve better.

A wide-grinned Kofi Annan stood for a photo-op yesterday alongside Kenya's president and his key opponent-that is, of course, the vote-rigging president and his ethnic-baiting adversary. The grouping of those three figures conveys the complexity for the international community in helping to propel democracy and some of the grim compromises of the global war on terror. To deal with it all, the Bush administration has added an unprecedented level of sophistry to its oratory on democracy.

Many observers hoped that the meeting between President Mwai Kibaki and the leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Raila Odinga, would stop the ethnic violence that has killed at least 600 people and displaced more than 300,000. As George Wachira, a member of Concerned Citizens for Peace, put it, "If people feel this is going to be resolved at a political level, people will realize there is no need to keep fighting in the streets." But shortly after they dispersed from the photo-op, Kibaki and Odinga began trading bitter accusations. And early today, a mob, made up largely of the president's ethnic Kikuyus, burned down dozens of homes in Rift Valley in retaliation for the ethnic-Luos' earlier attacks on Kikuyus.

The ethnic violence began after Kenya's December 27 election, which international observers have said was marred by widespread fraud. Human Rights Watch said today that the post-election violence was "planned and organized" by opposition party officials and local community elders. "Opposition leaders are right to challenge Kenya's rigged presidential poll, but they can't use it as an excuse for targeting ethnic groups," said Georgette Gagnon, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch, according to the group's website. "We have evidence that ODM politicians and local leaders actively fomented some post-election violence, and the authorities should investigate and make sure it stops now."

The Bush administration has tacked in all different directions as the Kenyan crisis has escalated and has managed, astonishingly enough, to insist all the while it is upholding democracy and good governance. Although there were already numerous reports that the election was rigged and broad knowledge that the electoral commission was corrupt, on December 30 the administration offered congratulations to Kibaki for winning the election. And the U.S. embassy issued a statement asking "all candidates to accept the Commission's final results and to urge their supporters to reject violence and respect the rule of law. Regardless of the eventual winners of this election, we call on Kenyans across the political spectrum to work together to advance democracy and national development."

The Bush administration clearly tried to shrug off the electoral fraud in Kenya. So much for "Every nation has learned, or should have learned, an important lesson: Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for-and the advance of freedom leads to peace" (President Bush, November 6, 2003), and all that. The administration presumably set aside any concern about electoral legitimacy because it does not want to be bothered about Kenya and considers Kibaki an ally in the global war on terror. It impressively managed, all the while, to rhetorically promote democratic reform as it condoned the electoral fraud.

After the post-election violence in Kenya began to catch the world's attention, the administration began to retreat from its earlier validation of Kibaki and his election. But it has also refrained from championing the cause of Kenya's opposition, the way it did so vigorously in Ukraine and Georgia. "You can never underestimate the ability of just a couple of people to tear a place apart," said the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael E. Ranneberger, on Wednesday. The country's opposing politicians seem "entrenched" and surrounded by "hard-liners," he also said, adding that his chief concern was whether Kibaki and Odinga were "prepared to rise above themselves and put the interests of the nation ahead of their own personal or their group's political interest." Either the Bush administration has come to acknowledge the perils of upholding opposition figures who may pursue something other than their nation's interest, or it never fully subscribed to its own categorical rhetoric on elections.

Given reports that the opposition coalition that Odinga leads either fomented or orchestrated the ethnic/political slaughter, a unity government in Kenya appears unpromising. George Ayittey, distinguished economist in residence at American University and an expert on Africa, notes that such unity governments have a record of failure in Africa. And he adds, "the destruction of an African country always begins with an electoral process," pointing to Algeria, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.

Ayittey recommends that Kenya convene a sovereign national conference, bringing together representatives of the country's major sectors, such as trade unions, churches, student groups, lawyers and politicians. Such a model, which is an expansion of the village conferences held in many tribal societies, has been successful in Afghanistan and a number of African countries, he said. The representatives are responsible for establishing an interim government and constitution and abiding by its tenets. "Such a sovereign national conference saved South Africa," he said.

Ayittey's well-reasoned proposition merits the backing of the international community. Kenya deserves better than Kibaki and Odinga, and the West should desist from throwing its weight behind a unity government that would empower both of them and deprive the people of better choices. And afterwards, the international community should let the people of Kenya take it from there.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.