My Joel Barkan tribute

I have been very much saddened by the sudden passing of Joel Barkan, the dean of American Kenya experts and a real friend to me during these years since we got together through the 2007 Kenyan election tragedy. Joel and his career are eloquently remembered here by his colleagues at CSIS–please take a moment for this.

Joel and I last corresponded two days before he died from a pulmonary embolism on January 10. He was having a wonderful time with his family in Mexico City and looking forward to going on to Colorado to ski. I was getting ready to observe the referendum in Egypt and got a chance to thank him again for providing me an introduction to the leadership of Democracy International a few years ago. Joel was always palpably excited about the time he and his wife Sandy got to spend with their adult children and I know that he had a fulfilling family life as well as an amazingly productive career. It’s just hard to accept that he is suddenly not here and I want to express my deepest condolences both to his family and to those many friends who knew him so much longer than I was privileged to.

It is especially sad that two of the friends that I came to admire and respect through the 2007 Kenyan exit poll saga have now passed away. See my tribute to Dr. Peter Oriare here.

When then-Ambassador Ranneberger listed the people he wanted the International Republican Institute to invite to observe the 2007 Kenyan election, Joel was the only person on both the Ambassador’s list and on IRI’s. Fortunately Joel agreed to come for the election and was our primary Kenya expert for our observation mission. On January 10, 2008, during the post election violence with no negotiation process under way, Joel was a panelist at a well-attended and high profile Washington event, Kenya: A Post Election Assessment, (program information and the video here) at the Wilson Center and co-sponsored by CSIS. Joel cited the IRI/USAID exit poll suggesting an opposition win, noting that it was “unfortunate” that it had not been released, although it had been covered by Slate magazine. IRI was chagrined–for whatever reason–that the exit poll had been brought into the discussion in Washington; I explained to the IRI Washington office that I had provided Joel the information on the embargoed poll results when he asked about them since he was our subject matter expert on the election observation and another member of the delegation had already gotten themselves engaged on the poll. Later, Joel supported the formal release of the poll results by the University of California, San Diego, researchers at CSIS once IRI’s contractual six month period of exclusivity with the University were up, in spite of pressure to stop it. IRI finally published the poll themselves the next month, but Joel still got attacked for doing what he thought was the only right and appropriate thing. Fortunately, Joel had thick skin and deep respect from those who knew him and his work.

Ironically, perhaps, it was Joel who served as the initial Democracy and Governance advisor for USAID for East Africa back in 1992 when IRI was selected to observe the initial post Cold War multi-party election in Kenya. Joel sent me a copy of Ambassador Smith Hempstone’s memoir, Rogue Ambassador from those years when he served as President George H.W. Bush’s political appointee in Nairobi. Hempstone explains that he had recommended to Moi that NDI be invited to observe that election. Moi refused to accept NDI but would agree to IRI. (Although Hempstone’s book does not mention it, during that 1992 election and into the next year Moi was represented in the United States by famed GOP consultant Charlie Black. Black was IRI Chairman McCain’s consultant in his own presidential bid in the US. during the 2008 contretemps in Kenya. With the average American democracy assistance worker too young to have much memory of the Cold War, much less have played in it, Joel’s institutional memory of both Kenyan politics and American policy was a tremendous resource, freely shared with those who cared about being right about Kenya.)

So Joel and I bonded initially over the shared experience of watching the post-vote fiasco unfold at the Electoral Commission of Kenya, then the shared conviction that a mistake was being made by not releasing the exit poll, and ultimately the common experience of attracting opprobrium for being seen as out of step with powers that were at IRI. He taught me a great deal, and will inspire me always. I will continue to miss him.

Detours, roadmaps and returning to the blog

Let me apologize for my long absence. Aside from taking another more successful run at a relatively non-digital family Christmas and vacation time, I have made a deliberate choice to maintain an unusual level of non-verbal reflection and discretion in preparing to travel to Egypt and serve as an election observer there with Democracy International for the constitutional referendum this week.

I’m on my way back to the U.S. now, passing through the purgatory of one of those Northern European airports. I am very grateful for the invitation from DI to serve again as an official volunteer observer after my intervening experiences in other roles in relation to observation missions in Kenya. Likewise I am grateful to my fellow taxpayers for funding the effort and the hardworking staff and volunteers who made things work as well as possible in my estimation.

Likewise, I am especially grateful not to have been arrested, given that some of my friends and colleagues doing similar U.S. democracy support work in Egypt in recent years have had their lives interrupted by being prosecuted. I hope this is a good sign for the future, but I wouldn’t want to read too much into my limited experience in this regard yet. The election was what it was, and as described by DI, and I saw a piece of it, and got to meet and interact Egyptians in a variety of context, almost all of which were positive. I continued my learning process, mostly from the people I was around, and will endeavor to reflect that here going forward. I hope Egypt will have more and bigger elections and I hope that I will be able at some point to go back and see the process continue to progress.

In the meantime, I promise to get back to punching away on democracy in East Africa promptly.

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Update: Democracy International press release and preliminary statement.

Updated: Burgeoning South Sudan crisis will increase Kenya’s leverage over donors, NGOs, international media

The news from South Sudan seems quite serious and disturbing. This is an area of special responsibility for the United States, and needless to say, I hope we are able to help.

Nairobi’s role for many years as the “back office” for international assistance to South Sudan has always given the Government of Kenya extra leverage through control of visas and work permits. My twitter feed indicates that the U.S. is recommending that Americans evacuate South Sudan as the current crisis swells with reports indicating 400-500 people may have been killed.

This brings to bear what I have called “the Nairobi curse” for Kenyans seeking political space, democracy and civil liberties of their own and hope for support from the international community. The thing you always hear, but never read, from internationals working in Kenya is “what if I can’t renew my work permit” because of some offense taken by someone in the Kenyan government.

Back in 2007-08 when I was East Africa director for IRI in Nairobi, we shared space with our separate Sudan program, which was much, much bigger than our Kenya program (and was IRI’s second largest program worldwide I was told, after Iraq). Under my East Africa office, our Somaliland program also got more funding than Kenya. Obviously there would have been repercussions from soured relations with the Kenyan administration. The same situation would pertain for NDI or other international organizations with large permanent regional operations based in Nairobi.

In my case, I arrived in Nairobi on the job in June 2007 expecting my work permit to come through within perhaps a few weeks of ordinary bureaucracy. With no explanation, it was not forthcoming until February 2008 during the late stages of the post election violence period. Thus, I did not have my permit issued yet when I was dealing with our controversial election observation and the issues about whether or not to release the exit poll that showed the opposition ODM winning the presidential race rather than the ECK’s official choice of Kibaki.
At some point that month I was summoned to an Immigration office at Nyayo House (where political prisoners where tortured in the basement during the Moi era) for no readily apparent reason and received the permit shortly thereafter. Of course Nairobi was a much more easy going place before the 2007 election than it is now. Nothing was ever said to connect any of this delay to anything to do with politics or the election and it may have been strictly a coincidence.

Fortunately for me, I was on leave from my job as a lawyer back in the United States, so being denied a permit and thus losing my job in Kenya and having to move my family back precipitously would not have been consequential for me in the way that it would have been for the typical young NGO worker. Everyone has their own story I am sure.

Earlier this year the Kenyan government announced, for instance, that it would start enforcing work permit rules for academic researchers on short assignments. Lots of room to maneuver for creatively repressive politicians.

By the way, Uhuru did end up signing that Media Bill.

Update: See the editorial in today’s Star: Work Permit Crackdown Is Counter-Productive. And the news story, “Rules on Work Permits Tighten“.

Turning Point in Kenya? Update on opposition to Kenyan anti-NGO and Media Bills

“Freedom of Expression is Your Right”–Subversive NGO Solganeering in Kenya’s Neighbor Uganda
"Freedom of expression is your right"

Opposition to controversial Kenya Media Bill heats up” Sabahi Online via AllAfrica.com

Cuts in foreign funding for NGOs intended to silence critics–Human Rights Watch” from Trust.org

William Ruto and his Ethiopian host had chilling message on media freedom” from Macharia Gaitho in The Daily Nation.

Kenya attempts to silence civil society“, Freedom House Spotlight on Freedom.

For perspective (not just to say I warned you so) see my post about Kenyatta and media freedom from December 2009:  “More Government of Kenya action to muzzle media”:

The Standard reports that it has been enjoined  from publishing stories regarding Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and the purchasing of government vehicles.  Uhuru sought the temporary injunction to protect his interests and reputation.  Seems like a classic case of a high gov’t official using prior restraint to avoid challenge to his job performance.

This is to me another example of fact that the media environment in Kenya is not quite as free as international commentators frequently suggest.  While there is quite a bit of reporting on corruption, the fact remains that it hasn’t dented impunity, and there is a great deal that is known but not reported, and many stories get started but never followed to conclusion.

After the paramilitary raid on the Standard Group in mid-2006, the US eventually made peace with impunity for this attack on the media.  By the summer of 2007, then-Internal Security Minister Michuki–who famously said of the Standard raid that the Standard, having “rattled a snake” should have expected “to get bitten” for its reporting–was the featured speaker at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July celebration, talking of his recent security cooperation tour in the US.  With this background for its critics in the Government, the press can’t help but wonder how far it can go.

And from March of this year: “Attacks on Kenyan Civil Society prefigured in Jubilee ‘manifesto’”

Kenyan Opinion Highlights–five columns of note (updated)

These are four  five recent columns from the Kenyan papers on different aspects of the current malaise in public affairs.  Each makes a general point which I think is of undoubtedly valid, but adds some perspective, analogy or point of fact that struck me as unique and particularly worthy of your attention if you missed it at the time:

“Media bang! NGOs pow! Who’s next?” from Muthoni Wanyeki in The East African.

“We expected better from ‘Defence Force’” from Wycliffe Muga in The Star.

“The Jubilee government’s ‘infantry thinking’ is leading it to intolerance” from Matuma Mathiu in the Daily Nation.

“Religious leaders are letting Kenyans down” from Fr. Gabriel Dolan in the Daily Nation.

“Protect media freedom for development” from Apollo Mboya in the Standard.

“Do not be afraid. The government will protect you.” KANU Revivalists offer alternative to democratic values in Kenya

Shortly after I arrived in Kenya in mid-2007, Kenya’s parliament passed a media regulation bill which faced a storm of international diplomatic criticism as well as domestic protest.

President Kibaki at the time backed down and sent the bill back to Parliament where it was ultimately somewhat watered down. New legislation passed last week goes much further than what was dared under the first Kibaki Administration, in spite of the new constitution. This time there doesn’t seem to be much reaction from international governments–we give our aid money quietly and tiptoe so as not to step on important toes since we have been aggressively accused of imperialism and racism for not intervening to stop the ICC prosecutions of The Now Elected for the mayhem after the 2007 election–but the international media is much more aware of these issues than they were in 2007.

And if the media bill has been put in some limbo, it has been followed by the introduction of the Jubilee bill to assert more state control over civil society and restrict and channel foreign funding to non-governmental organizations. The Uhuruto team had not shown its cards on attacking the media during the election campaign, but civil society was always a known target. See Attacks on Kenyan Civil Society prefigured in Jubilee Manifesto, my post from March this year.  More freedom for the media and for civil society means more restraints on politicians in control of government.  Restricting civil society can help maximize the opportunity to control the media, and vice versa.

Kenyans are confronted once again by the hard choice of whether they are willing to challenge their “leaders” in governmental power to maintain their individual freedoms as citizens.

Uhuru Kenyatta stayed with KANU throughout his life through the formation of TNA as a vehicle for his presidential campaign in this year’s race.  Other than running in elections himself, he has not given much indication over the years that I am aware of being concerned for opening the democratic space and by running as “Moi’s Project” as the KANU nominee in 2002 he chose the old banner.  Of course when you are one of the richest men in Africa, and your mother is one of the richest women, because of what your father took for himself and his family when he was the one-party ruler, you find yourself with plenty of freedom of speech and freedom to politically organize regardless of the details of the system that confront the small people.

In the wake of the Westgate attack, and the desire of the government to avoid scrutiny or challenge, I am reminded poignantly of what Kibaki said when he first ventured out thirteen days after he had himself sworn in for his second term:

January 9, 2008–13 days after the 2007 election (NBC News):

Kibaki made his first trip to a trouble spot, addressing more than 1,000 refugees in western Kenya, many of whom had fled blazing homes, pursued by rock-throwing mobs wielding machetes and bows and arrows.
“Do not be afraid. The government will protect you. Nobody is going to be chased from where they live,” Kibaki said at a school transformed into a camp for the displaced in the corn-farming community of Burnt Forest. “Those who have been inciting people and brought this mayhem will be brought to justice.”
He indicated he would not consider demands for a new election or vote recount.
The election “is finished, and anybody who thinks they can turn it around should know that it’s not possible and it will never be possible,” he said.

Perhaps for those Kenyans that feel sure that the government will always protect them, there is no need for these things of a free media, civil society, the questioning of elections.  Kenya could just go back to the Chinese model of the one party state.  Kenyans who prefer a freer, more empowered citizenship as a matter of values, or who don’t feel they can count on the government to always protect them will have to decide to engage to protect those rights which are of course expressed in law in the new constitution.  See “CIC (Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution) says new media law unconstitutional”, Daily Nation.

Kenyan Media

Kenyan Media

Kenya’s ELOG delivers major report on election

The Elections Observation Group (ELOG) has published yesterday a lengthy report for the first time on its observation of the March 4 Kenyan election.  Having criticized the lack of transparency of aspects of ELOG’s observation and Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) program in the immediate post-election period, and cited criticism of their public communications in characterizing the PVT I wanted to quickly recognize the level of their follow-up here in their first release since March 9.

I will need more time with the report before discussing it in detail here as it runs to 78 pages plus attachments (and in the meantime I have recently rejoined the corporate world so I am back to avocational status on Kenya projects) but this deserves real attention and goes far beyond what has been published by the other major observation groups.

In the meantime, here is ELOG’s conclusion:

This report has delved deep into the electoral process starting the journey from the troubled times of 2007/2008 when the country burnt.  It has given an insight into the insidious political problems that Kenya has had to grapple with.

The report analyses the ills that the country must heal before it finally gets out of the political woods.  From negative ethnicity fueled by the “tyranny of numbers” to weak or unreliable institutions, the country has major problems to fix to ensure free and fair elections that are beyond reproach.

The report also makes it clear that although the restored faith in the judiciary and the fear of the ICC may have averted the violence that engulfed the nation after the 2007 general elections, faith in the IEBC and the judiciary was eroded following the Supreme Court ruling on the presidential petition filed by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

All stakeholders need to put in extra work and resources to help enhance the public understanding of their civil rights while enhancing the efficiency of all institutions charged with conducting elections in Kenya.

Peace Wall

Are “free and fair” elections passe in Kenya?

Uganda Debt NetworkHappy American Independence Day–it has now been a full four months since Kenya’s 2013 election, yet the results have still not been released by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

The 2012 Kenyan Constitution mandates in Article 81: “The electoral system shall comply with the following principles––

(e) free and fair elections, which are—

(i) by secret ballot;
(ii) free from violence, intimidation, improper influence or
corruption;
(iii) conducted by an independent body;
(iv) transparent; and
(v) administered in an impartial, neutral, efficient, accurate
and accountable manner.

Thus “free and fair” is the legal standard in Kenya. So what standard did the international observer missions that issued their reports on Kenya’s elections without waiting for the official results apply?

Note this from Mienke Mari Stetytler’s “Observing the observers: how the Kenyan election was verified” republished in the Daily Maverick this week:

One month after the election, on April 4th, the Carter Center released its postelection statement. “In spite of serious shortcomings in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s management of technology and tabulation of final election results, the paper-based procedure for counting and tallying presented enough guarantees to preserve the expression of the will of Kenyan voters.”
Kenneth Flottman, an independent elections consultant, noted that not one of the observer missions referred to the elections as “free and fair” in their preliminary or post-election reports. “Holding back on calling the election ‘free and fair’ reflects the reality of the known problems with the election,” Flottman said. “At its most crass, this is a way to say that the government in power cheated some, but the opposition probably would have lost anyway.”

He conceded that “there is a tendency to apply lower standards to achieve a ‘free and fair’ election in Africa compared to other regions [of the world]. If anything, this makes the decision not to apply the label to this election in Kenya more noteworthy.”

David Pottie, associate director of the Carter Center’s democracy programme, contested this view. “It isn’t that African elections are held to a different (higher or lower) standard than countries elsewhere in the world,” Pottie said in an e-mail. “Rather, the Carter Center bases its assessment on a) Kenya’s international obligations and b) Kenya’s constitutional and legal framework.” He added that “free and fair” is no longer the “language of choice in international public law”.

Peter Visnovitz, EU election observation mission spokesperson, agreed: “The ‘free and fair’ phrase fell out of use because defining an election as ‘free and fair’ is very black and white—it requires a yes or no answer. Whereas, in fact, electoral processes are complex and it is very difficult to come up with a concept of ‘fair’ that would please everyone.”

Ilona Tip, operations director at EISA’s South African office in Johannesburg, explained that phrases like “transparent and credible” or “the expression of the will of voters” are now preferred.

.  .  .  .

“The long, long vote count” –new reporting from Kenya in Africa Confidential

Election Observers

The new “free article” from this month’s Africa Confidential says better what I have been getting at about the extraordinary delay in releasing the results from the Kenyan election, along with new independent reporting on the facts:

. . . In the longer term, such doubts could prompt a re-evaluation of foreign election monitoring missions in Africa. Some on the European Union mission, for example, had serious doubts about the integrity of the process, but it quickly endorsed Kenyatta’s election. By that stage, the EU had contributed more than 50 million euros (US$66 mn.) to the cost of the elections, reckoned to total over $400 mn. One diplomat in Nairobi joked that it was a case of ‘responsibility without power’, meaning that the EU would be blamed for a messy result due to its financial involvement but had no power to change anything.

The IEBC found that a million more votes were cast in the presidential election than in any other, Africa Confidential has learned, although all were held on the same day. Opposition and civil society activists have raised questions about such discrepancies for several months.

An unnamed electoral commissioner quoted in the Nairobi daily The Star appears to confirm their suspicions: ‘We are having sleepless nights reconciling the presidential results and those of the other positions. Over a million votes must be reconciled with the others and if the requirement is not changed, then it will cast the IEBC in a negative light.’

Kenyatta’s supporters reject the concerns, arguing that it is natural that voters were more worried about selecting the national president than candidates for other positions. Few neutrals see this as credible. In the past, dramatically higher turnouts in presidential elections than in others on the same day have been taken as a sign of ballot-box stuffing.

It seems far-fetched that over a million Kenyans would queue for several hours to vote and then ignore all of the ballots apart from the presidential one, especially since there was great excitement about the contests for new, powerful positions such as senator and governor. None of the many election observers we asked said they had seen significant numbers of voters putting a ballot paper in the presidential box but not the others.

. . . .

Please read the whole piece; this is important for the future of Kenya and for future elections everywhere.

 

[Updated June 3] “Kenya’s Elections: Observing the observers”

The new June issue of Africa in Fact published by Good Governance Africa based in South Africa has an article, “Kenya’s Elections: Observing the observers” by Mienke Mari Steytler.  I hope you will take time to read it.

The article included some observations on the work of the Election Observation Missions from interviews in Nairobi with yours truly as an independent consultant and responses and comments from others.  Here is one example:

The EU and the Commonwealth missions are also known for their independence and diplomacy, but others—particularly groups representing intergovernmental bodies—are less critical and independent, according to Mr Flottman. The AU mission had 69 observers and visited 400 polling stations throughout the country. The IGAD/ EAC/COMESA coalition deployed 55 observers to this year’s election.

Kenya is a member of the AU, IGAD, the EAC and COMESA, and they share geopolitical interests. Mr Flottman emphasised that observer missions representing the regional groupings are unlikely “to challenge any position of government”. For instance, the IGAD coalition mission declared the party nominations stage a success, Mr Flottman said. “They said the primaries were good. This is a nonsense statement. No one said that, come on.”

“Observer missions from the AU, SADC [Southern African Development Community], EAC, ECOWAS [Economic Community Of West African States]…because they are intergovernmental bodies, there is the ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’ approach to certifying elections,” EISA’s Mr Owuor said, supporting Mr Flottman’s view. “In other words they were not very critical in an effort not to offend the current government.”

 

Update: on the issue of the use of the term “free and fair”, see The Star, “March 4 polls free, fair – EU”:

EUROPEAN Union election observers have said that the March 4 general elections in Kenya were “overally successful, free and fair” despite reported flaws.

They have however said the processing of the final results by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission “lacked the necessary transparency as party agents and election observers were not given adequate access to the tallying centres”.

Speaking yesterday in Nairobi while releasing the final report, EU elections observation mission chief observer Alojz Peterle said there are several lessons from the difficulties that arose during the process.

 

Here is the link to the entire issue for pdf download:  Africa in Fact:  June 2013–Elections: Make Them Count.

So who is “Good Governance Africa”?  Here is an interview by Africa in Fact editor Constanza Montana of John Endres, CEO of this “new kid on the block” of organizations working to improve governance in Africa.

Update:  See also this recent piece from Think Africa Press by Dr. Judith Kelley at Duke: “Watching the Watchmen: The Role of Election Observers in Africa”:

. . . There are certainly sometimes questions about the conduct of outside observers.

Elections in Kenya unfortunately often provide a case in point and the latest is no exception. The EU monitors have been dragging their feet, with their final report now overdue. EU observer mission spokesman, Peter Visnovitz, reportedly promised the report would be made public by 4 May, but we are still waiting. Furthermore, in its initial press release (before the counting was complete), the EU was positive despite noting that the biometric voting process disenfranchised more than 3 million voters.

Why is the EU taking so long for its final assessment? The Kenyan Star claims that an internal report revealed strong reservations about the processing of the results. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted numerous problems and criticised the swiftness with which international observer groups pronounced all well in Kenya’s vote.

Earlier commotion around international observers in Kenya includes their muted response to the problems in the 1992 election; the mission was eager to send positive signals to calm fears of upheavals and resume aid. Their conduct in Kenya’s 2007 election also drew criticism from the UN Independent Review Commission; the body reported that monitors had at times based their claims on misunderstandings.

Time for an African solution?

International observers are clearly not perfect. But the final part of Obasanjo’s argument – that cure for the problem is for African monitoring groups to take over from international missions – rests on equally shaky grounds.

It is true that African groups have become more active. The AU, SADC, ECOWAS, and the electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA), among others, all now feature election observer missions. The AU started as far back as 1989, and the other groups have joined in the last 10 years or so.

That, however, is where the argument stalls. By and large, these groups are not ready to take over as the sole option for election observation on the continent. They have limited resources and experience, their sponsors or member-states are often not particularly democratic themselves, and most importantly, because these organisations are even more embroiled in politics on the continent, they are often more biased than non-African observers.