Happy Saba Saba Day–and how is Kenya?

Happy Saba Saba Day–and how is Kenya?. (from July 7, 2012–would appreciate your comments here or by e-mail about what has and has not changed)

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“.

Little Feet

Little Feet by AfriCommons
Little Feet, a photo by AfriCommons on Flickr.

From a different mall at a happier time, but this reminded me of those missing from the Westgate attacks.

“Missing Victims Didn’t Just Disappear” Jenny Luesby in The Standard.

While mourning, and One_dering . . .

A piece that you might have missed on the Westgate attack that touches more of the bases than most: The Real Reason al-Shabab Attacked a Mall in Kenya by Bronwyn Bruton at DefenseOne.com.
Also: “Terror Strikes Nairobi, Crossing Borders” from Lauren Hutton at the Netherlands Institute of International Affairs (Clingendael).

And if you missed a wise perspective on the human context, here is Karen Rothmyer in The Nation: “Reflections on the Kenya Terror Attack”

Other lessons so far: from Abdul Haji, son of the Garissa Senator and former Defense Minister, who drove from another shopping mall (Yaya Centre) and helped rescue many at Westgate after a cell call from his brother who was stranded by the attackers, we learn that real heroes drink Dormans (and pack a pistol), and leave notes for the owners of cars they back into while rushing to rescue their brothers.  The story of the Haji-on-the-spot collaboration with the Kenyan Red Cross, a handful of plainclothes police and a kitted out group of what we might call “neighborhood watchmen” is just so deeply “Kenyan”.

Ambassador David Shinn appropriately noted on his blog that his biggest surprise about the Westgate attack is that it hadn’t happened sooner.  People I touch base with expect more, and we have additional attacks in Mandera and Wajir.  In order to stay safe and protect each other, it seems to me that Kenyans need to calmly but firmly and persistently press to get as much truthful information as possible about what happened at Westgate and take responsibility for their neighborhoods and surroundings.

The #WeAreOne_dering hashtag on Twitter has brought people from all over the world into the conversation about what really has really happened with this attack.

The United States, in particular, has spent millions on an ongoing basis, through the State Department and the Defense Department directly and indirectly on  “capacity building”, training, etc. for Kenyan security.  Given the meager preparation for and response to an attack like Westgate, we need to quickly recalibrate to account for the present reality and the immediate threat.

Here is my post from 2009 “Corruption and Terrorism/Security”. And from 2010 “U.S.-Kenya Relations: A counterterrorism versus reform tradeoff?”

And to address the religious dimension, here is an important post from African Arguments via allAfrica.com: “Somalia: To Beat Al Shabaab Kenya Must Expel its Religious Leader “Sheikh Hassaan” From Nairobi”.  And the National Council of Churches of Kenya has posted this flyer from the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya announcing a “We Are One in Prayer” event on October 1.

KPTJ Statement

Sharing the statement released by KPTJ this morning:

At this time of grief, we, Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, wish to express our deepest condolences to the families of those who have been lost or remain missing, and wish a swift recovery to all those who have been hurt. We applaud the contributions of our fellow Kenyans to support rescue and security work and medical care for victims, as well as the unity our nation has demonstrated throughout this crisis. We condemn this despicable attack and support all work to rescue those still trapped at Westgate, and to end the situation as soon as possible and without further loss of life.

Two things to read after the Westgate attack (updated)

Simon Allison in The Daily Maverick has a piece today entitled “Nairobi attack: Why Kenya and why now?”  that strikes me as solid and recommended priority reading.

As far as where things are in Somalia this is probably a good time to read, if you missed it, Matt Bryden’s report “Somalia Redux?: Assessing the new Somali federal government” for the Center for Strategic and International Affairs, which provides a sobering corrective to any notions that recent progress in Somalia is more than a set of limited early steps toward any long term formation of a stable state.

Add this on the Kenyan security situation: “Kenya mall al-shabaab attacks reveal security cracks” Africa Report.

Why Westgate? [updated 9-24]

I certainly claim no special insight into the minds of Al Shabaab, but by virtue of having been around long enough to have been marked in childhood by the memory of the “Black September” attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, it isn’t a surprise to read that “Westgate Shopping Mall is one of several Israeli-owned businesses in Kenya.” “Shopping mall in premier complex that is home to international brands”, Saturday Nation.

Likewise, Nairobi’s upscale malls are hubs for internationals and expats, as well as symbols of the prosperity and comfort that can be found by the affluent in Nairobi and a source of local pride. The psychological and economic impact from mass murder at such a place is entirely different than mass murder of a similar scale in some other town or village, or in the slums.

I have to say I don’t believe these people would be sated if they ruled all of Somalia without challenge.

[Update: This post was an early reaction to news of the attacks. With the crisis nearing an end after three days, we don't seem to really know much yet about the attackers and the specifics of the operation. Variety of contradictory information and lots of opinions, some derived from some substantial amount of experience and knowledge, some from little.]

More impressions from observing voting in Nairobi

One big challenge is slowness of process–certainly no surprise at all which is why my civil society colleagues asked that the contingency plans for this be announced ahead of time by the IEBC (electoral commission). Poll openings at 8-10am appear common in Nairobi rather than scheduled 6am–again no surprise given the logistics involved. It certainly appears that in most cases a paper rather than electronic poll book is in use. Further it appears that complete absence of working electronic BVR for voter identification is common. Some polling streams never received hardware at all; others received too little or found it unusable for whatever reason.

Wholly manual voting then is normal, even though the voter registration was truncated to provide for the use of BVR. Given that the voting is inevitably slow and the turnout is huge, I heard from one fellow observer of polling station workers just taking down names of people who presented IDs and allowing them to vote because it would take too long to try to find and check off names on the paper lists.

The voters are being in general extremely patient with hours of pre-dawn queuing and waiting in hot sun. Ordinary Kenyans in Nairobi certainly are demonstrating both peace and a commitment to the voting process itself.

The unexpected problem, to me and people I have spoken with, is that the ballot boxes were getting close to full with only a relatively small percentage of voters having voted. Presiding officers indicated no backup capacity, but were shaking the boxes to settle the cast ballots..

First impressions–front and back

I covered the opening of a Nairobi polling centre this morning.

Loose general impressions in comparison with 2007: pre-opening lines seemed even bigger than 2007; large numbers of people got out to que in the pre-dawn; actual voting quite slow as should be expected with new and complicated process and six ballots versus three. There was some stream of periodic boisterousness from people waiting and concerned by bottlenecks–things were quiter in 2007.

One thing that annoyed me was to see that the ballot papers are all white paper except for the color on the front only to correspond with the specific race (i.e. “purple” for woman’s representative to National Assembly). This means when you fold the six ballots for secrecy and to drop them in the color-coded box they look the same. My civil society colleagues raised this issue, among many, with the IEBC. The IEBC reported to one member of the civil society coalition who then circulated the response, that the cheaper ballot papers colored only on one side were only for the “mock election” testing, and that today, voters would have the intended fully colored paper.

Apparently not so. Not that the problem in itself is of such magnitude perhaps, but the quality of the information and means of communication from the IEBC were lacking on this point. And of course it would be good to know, even though it will be too late, what happened in the procurement process to cause this.

Enjoyed meeting diplomatic observers from the Danish Embassy and the Eritrean Foreign Ministry.