How will the U.S. handle its involvement with a possible Kenyan referendum?

We have the examples of Kenya’s constitutional referenda of 2005 and 2010 for some lessons.

In the fall of 2005, the Government of Kenya, on behalf of the “Wako Draft” constitution being brought to a referendum vote–the “Banana campaign”– loudly claimed that the U.S. was interfering in the referendum in opposition to President Kibaki’s position.  In 2010, Americans campaigning against the “Committee of Experts as Amended” Draft complained that the U.S. was interfering in the referendum by supporting the “Yes” campaign.

I am not aware that there was any substance to the allegations in 2005.  For one thing, it was not clear to me by the time I was on the scene in Kenya in mid-2007 that people at the State Department were necessarily glad that the referendum had failed.  One American official suggested to me that the Wako Draft had not been that bad and certainly better than the old constitution that everyone was left to deal with.  My inclination is that the campaign rhetoric from some of Kibaki’s ministers was just that–campaign rhetoric using the American “bogeyman” as a foil to rally solidarity from Kibaki’s political base (in other words, a somewhat milder version of what the Uhruruto campaign did with more success in 2013, less the ICC “bogeyman”).  Admittedly, I was not involved in 2005 and have made no independent investigation of the matter so I am not purporting to offer any definitive opinion. The International Republican Institute exit poll funded by USAID was consistent with the big victory for the “Orange” side officially reported by the Electoral Commission of Kenya following the vote in November 2005.

In 2010, things were different.  Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, Chairman of the relevant subcommittee covering Africa of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs pressed the issue and it was eventually reported in the Daily Nation that Smith had received a report from the USAID Inspector General that “found that US funding did go specifically to encourage “Yes” vote on referendum.”  In that situation, however, the Government of Kenya was not complaining because Kibaki himself, along with former “Orange” leader Raila Odinga as Prime Minister, was supporting the Amended Draft.  The Amended Draft was jiggered to accommodate the negotiated interests of most political leaders in the “government of national unity” around both Kibaki and ODM.  There was some organized opposition led by William Ruto which outpolled the Draft in the Rift Valley, but only there.  At the time, Ruto was on the outs with both the President’s faction and with ODM, among other things from pressure tied to allegations about participation in post election violence and certain pending corruption allegations, so no one outside his immediate base was too concerned about his position.

Process purists like myself thought it was wrong for the U.S. to let our funding cross into the campaign itself, beyond simply assisting the process–and to deny it if we did do it.  Americans who opposed the Kenyan Draft because of their concerns about the impact of language on the two “contentious issues”–the Khadi’s Courts and abortion–did not like to have their tax dollars used against them in the campaign.  Kenyans who opposed the Draft may have had comparable feelings in regard to U.S. “democracy assistance” spending, but I didn’t pick up on much complaint–given that their own government was campaigning against them, the U.S. funding as a distinct issue would not be the first and most obvious issue about neutrality, even though the sums of money involved were quite huge for Kenya.

The other key aspect to the context of 2010 is that there was great pent up public demand for a reformed constitution that had been promised for years. The ” yes” side won in a landslide and surveys afterward showed that Kenyans were approaching unanimity in being glad that the constitution had passed. In this environment, the process details about funding do not seem to have so much actual or perceived political significance.

As far as a 2015 referendum triggered by the current petition drive, I have no idea what approach people in our various foreign policy organizations would take on substance.  In general, I doubt people in the U.S. government would care very much directly one way or the other regarding constitutional amendments now unless something unexpected showed up in a draft late in the game.

I haven’t heard or read anything about “the reform agenda” from Washington in a long time even though it was for some years a constant refrain from the State Department.  “Reform” seems to have happened in 2010 and have borne fruit with the IEBC’s decision on the 2013 election being accepted by the opposition,  challenged only in court.  The lion’s share of “reform agenda” that was envisioned in the 2008 post election settlement has not come to pass–for instance the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission seems to have become just one more Kenyan Commission  producing a report to be somewhat censored then shelved for the edification of future scholars who might want to know more about what has gone wrong over the years.  Likewise, there is nearly universal impunity now settled for all the acts of post election violence, subject only to the three last cases lingering at the ICC–so one way or the other, most people involved will have gone scot free. The biggest substantive recommendation of the Kreigler Commission, which found the whole election in 2007 to have been a bust, was to deploy electronic reporting of the vote tallies from the polling station to Nairobi as opposed to depending on physical carriage of the paper forms.  That single most crucial upgrade was a complete failure in the 2013 election–in circumstances that were left murky–and the IEBC turned out not even to even have a working process to handle the reporting on paper.  Nonetheless, if “we” the United States were going to get too exercised about any of this, surely we would have done so in 2013 when we were faced with the embarrassment of having a relationship with an elected government led by ICC suspects.  Instead we bent over backwards to find ways to praise another poor election process because it wasn’t openly stolen at the the presidential level this time and murder and mayhem didn’t follow.  Now everyone seems to have pretty much gotten used to that formerly unprecedented situation of close diplomatic interaction with ICC suspects.  Bottom line is that I doubt that my government will want to play heavily pro or con in a Kenya referendum in the near future.

Nonetheless, I think we can count on the U.S. being very much involved even assuming we are not much concerned about the outcome.  A State Department report has estimated that international support for the 2013 election was approximately $60M, with more than $37M in “medium term” USAID funding.  We have had IFES embedded with the ECK/IEBC for every vote starting with 2001 for the 2002 election; we have funded polling and election observation each time, along with a gamut of other activities.  One way or the other, I am sure we will be “all up in it”.  On balance, the Government of Kenya has liked it that way–for whatever reason–because that has been the choice that they have made, year in and year out, in accepting our money.  Even if they point and holler during the campaign.

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