Readers will undoubtedly be following the news of the Kenyan military moving to challenge al-Shabaab well across the border in southern Somalia. I don’t feel that I have anything particularly profound to add to what is readily available on the direct events, but I did want to suggest some questions that need to be considered as to how this military action will interact with democracy and governance at a critical time in Kenya.
In Nairobi, three names have now been passed to the President and Prime Minister for consideration for nomination to chair a new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Preparations for the next election are running behind as is the overall “reform agenda” including other key aspects of implementing the new Constitution. There is progress in some areas, “backsliding” in others, and time is short.
The threat of terrorism by Islamist extremists has been a part of the fabric of Kenyan governance and international relations for a long time now, especially since the 1998 Embassy bombings. Al-Shabaab has been willing to starve civilians and commit a variety of atrocities on Somalis, and engaged in external terrorism in Kampala last year. Kenya has a right to be concerned and a right and obligation to protect its citizens and territory. At the same time, it would be naive not to recognize the potential for this new military action to distract and divert resources from other critical work that needs to be done within the Kenyan government.
Likewise, this new environment will present a big challenge to the United States, and perhaps to the UK and EU in supporting the reform process. We went through this before in 2006 and 2007. Compare U.S. criticism of corruption in the Kenyan government before and after the Ethiopians invaded Somalia in December 2006. (I have no evidence of any correlation between the dramatic change in tone on corruption and events in and relating to Somalia–and no one has ever suggested one to me. But then, no one has really offered any other clear explanation either, so I have had to wonder about this.) Heightened military interaction with Kenyan forces could in theory make it harder for the U.S. to push consistently for reforms in Kenyan governance or lower reforms on the list of U.S. priorities. To me, reform is the best medicine to fight the threat of terrorism and regional instability, and terrorists will always have access to Kenya as long as key pieces of the Kenyan governance structure can be purchased. But sometimes it is hard for us to keep our eye on that ball when there are challenges from immediate disruptions.
An then there is the upcoming election itself. If it was ultimately “best not to know” who won in 2007, how much risk can be tolerated to try for a freer and fairer Kenyan election in 2012?