“The War for History” part ten: What was going on in the State Department on Kenya’s failed election, recognizing change at IRI–and how the 2007 exit poll controversy turned into a boon for IRI in Kenya

The International Republican Institute’s New Leader and Kenya

The new president of the International Republican Institute (“IRI”) since January 2014, Mark Green, visited Kenya this past summer with a personal background in East Africa.  He and his wife taught for a year in western Kenya in the 1980s and he came back to observe the election in 2002 as a Member of Congress from Wisconsin (he was elected in 1998).  After unsuccessfully running for governor in 2006 he led the Washington office of Malaria No More and was appointed Ambassador to Tanzania by President Bush in August 2007.

Ironically, Green was appointed Ambassador in the wake of a controversy in which his predecessor, a political appointee who had been Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, was accused of interference with the intended independence of the Peace Corp operation in Tanzania.  The Peace Corp headquarters defended their Country Director who was expelled from Tanzania by Green’s predecessor.  The expulsion was enough of an issue that first Senator Dodd and then Senator Kerry put a “hold” on Green’s confirmation as replacement until the State Department issued an apology and Green gave assurances that his approach would be substantially different.  Ambassador Green had significant support in moving through the controversy from Senator Feingold, the Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee–also from Wisconsin–who emphasized Green’s background with the region.

It was just a few months later that Senator Feingold, on February 7, 2008 grilled Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and Assistant USAID Administrator Kathleen Almquist on why the USAID-funded exit poll conducted through IRI on the Kenyan election on December 27 had not been released.  It was that evening that IRI released their statement that the poll was “invalid” which they did not reverse until six months later, the day before testimony about the exit poll in Nairobi before the Kreigler Commission.  [To be precise, IRI did not retract their statement that the poll was “invalid”; they rather issued a new statement releasing the poll and thus in fact superseding their previous characterization.]

Diplomats on the ground: East Africa during the Kenyan crisis 2007-08

As Ambassador in Tanzania from 2007-09, Green hosted President Bush on the President’s February 2008 Africa visit.  Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rice flew to Nairobi to meet with the ODM and PNU leaders on February 18 and push for a power sharing deal that made space for the opposition in the second Kibaki Administration that had been inaugurated by Kibaki’s twilight swearing in on December 30.

Before Rice visited, the State Department had issued congratulations to Kibaki, then backed off, while Ambassador Ranneberger was initially encouraging Kenyans to accept the election results as announced by the ECK. Kibaki had appointed his core team of fifteen top ministers, including the new Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Uhuru Kenyatta in the Local Government portfolio with jurisdiction over Nairobi, on January 8, four days after Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer arrived to lead the State Department team in person in Nairobi.  Frazer joined other Western diplomats in objecting to the new appointments but, as with Kibaki’s swearing in, the new appointments became fait accompli.  See “Fury as Kenyan leader names ministers”.  By his arrival in Africa on February 17, President Bush himself, however, was warning of consequences to a continuing failure to negotiate power sharing:

“We’ve been plenty active on these issues, and we’ll continue to be active on these issues because they’re important issues for the U.S. security and for our interests,” Bush said after landing in the tiny coastal country of Benin. He noted he will send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Kenya on Monday. “The key is that the leaders hear from her firsthand the U.S. desires to see that there be no violence and that there be a power-sharing agreement that will help this nation resolve its difficulties.”

A senior administration official later told reporters that the administration wants to use the Rice visit to pressure Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to compromise with his opposition. The official expressed frustration that Kibaki seems to assume unqualified U.S. support and said that Rice will tell him, “If you can’t make a deal, you’re not going to have good relations with and support of the United States.” The official added, “We’re not going to support a Kenya government that’s going on as business as usual.”  [emphasis added]

“Bush, in Africa, issues warning to Kenya”, Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2008.

As Ambassador in Tanzania, Green received the cables from Ambassador Ranneberger in Kenya that I have discussed in my FOIA Series on this blog, including Ranneberger’s pre-election description of the planned exit poll: “The Mission is funding national public opinion polling to increase the availability of objective and reliable data and to provide an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls.  The implementing partner is IRI.” [emphasis added].  Likewise Ambassador Ranneberger’s January 2 cable describing personally witnessing the altered vote tallies received at the ECK headquarters prior to the announcement of Kibaki as winner on December 30.  See Part Ten–FOIA Documents From Kenya’s 2007 Election–Ranneberger at ECK: “[M]uch can happen between the casting of votes and the tabulation of ballots, and it did”.

I was in Somaliland for IRI the day Secretary Rice spent in Nairobi.  She also met that day with some other Kenyans at the embassy residence and a cable over her name regarding “Secretary Rice’s February 18, 2008 visit with Kenyan business and civil society leaders” was sent on February 21 from “USDEL SECRETARY KENYA” to Washington “IMMEDIATE” and to “AMEMBASSY DAR ES SALAAM PRIORITY” along with other interested posts.  Under a section of the cable labeled “Worries about Hardliners, Militias, and Accountability”  are three paragraphs:

7.  [Redacted] described the perceptual gulf that exists between business leaders worried at the steep decline in many economic sectors and the apparent willingness by Kibaki supporters to wait out the political crisis.  To date, Kibaki hard-liners appear unmoved by job, income and investment losses as both local and international businesses decide to go elsewhere, [  ] observed.  [  ] also related persistent reports that militias associated with both factions are now arming themselves via Sudan and Somalia.

8. [Two-and-a half lines redacted] stressed the need for accountability–so that Kenyans who turned out in record numbers for the December election learn what happened to their votes, and the leaders behind vigilantism and state violence be held to account.  Constitutional reform, she said, is necessary to address two great problems: gross partiality by the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) and excessive power held by the executive branch of government.  Noting that Kenya’s diaspora in the UK reportedly are mobilizing funds to support ethnic militias, [  ] asked the Secretary to ensure that the same is not happening in the United States.  She then questioned why a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) was not released that suggested that ODM candidate Odinga may have won the December elections.  IRI says the survey was in training analysis and has methodological errors calling into question its reliability.

9. Secretary Rice clarified that the IRI is wholly independent of the US government and that its views, analysis and conclusions should not be confused with USG policy.  Assistant Secretary Frazer underscored this by relaying that she was asked about the IRI survey by members of the United States Congress, and affirmed that she had no information about why the survey was not released and had no position on whether it should be released or not.

It is not clear to me the source of the last sentence in Paragraph 8 that “IRI says the survey was in training analysis and has methodological errors calling into question its reliability”.  As IRI East Africa Director and Chief of Party for the USAID polling agreement, the first time I saw or heard the representation that the exit poll was a “training exercise” that was never intended to be released to the public was the next month, on March 12, when Ambassador Ranneberger hosted a State Department on-line public question-and-answer forum and fielded a question about the still-unreleased exit poll.  I never did hear any such thing said within IRI; it was simply not true as I have documented from the contracts and cables, aside from my own word as Chief of Party.  As discussed, our January 15 IRI quarterly report to USAID for the final performance on the polling program for October-December 2007 explained that the exit poll had been successfully performed and said nothing about either a “training exercise” or “methodological errors”.  The language from Ambassador Ranneberger’s pre-election cable identifying the purpose “to increase the availability of objective and reliable data and to provide an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls” reflected the actual agreement between USAID and IRI that I was administering and my explicit pre-election conversations with the Contracting Technical Officer at USAID.  I reached out through my Kenyan contacts last year after getting this cable to find the person who had asked the question of Secretary Rice and that civil society leader was not the source.

What really happened?

As I have previously noted, under the data rights provisions applicable to the agreement between USAID and IRI, the U.S. Government in fact had the rights to the polling data it had paid for and had every right to release it if it chose to even if IRI, for whatever reason, preferred not to.  As for IRI, as noted in the New York Times investigation, “Under its contract, the institute was expected to consult with the Agency for International Development and the embassy before releasing the exit poll results, taking into account the poll’s technical quality and ‘other key diplomatic interests.’ ”  I am reliably told from within the government side that such consultation did take place and was determinative, and I myself exchanged emails on the release issue with the USAID contracting officer in Nairobi. [This contract correspondence was among the documents that I am personally aware of that USAID recently declined to produce in response to my Freedom of Information Act request from April 2013.]

So what would have been the “other key diplomatic interests” to be accounted for?  If you read the Washington Post quote above from President Bush’s landing in Africa and Paragraph 7 of Secretary Rice’s cable it is easy to see that release of the exit poll results could have helped provide needed diplomatic pressure to get the hardliners on the Kibaki side who thought they could ride out the crisis while “Kibaki seems to assume unqualified U.S. support” to negotiate.  It is this interest that is reflected also in Raila Odinga’s December 2008 letter to IRI (as published on their web site) that some of his supporters believed that release of the exit poll results “could have saved lives”.  On the other hand, the exit poll results contradicted the purported internal analysis that Ambassador Ranneberger had offered in the media in January that the election could have been won by either side by 100,000 votes either way (as noted previously, my State Department FOIA requests turned up the actual analysis by Ranneberger’s staff which in fact concluded “advantage Raila” even without reference to the exit poll).  It also contradicted Ranneberger’s original expressed expectations of a smooth Kibaki win in a “success story” election before polling in September started showing Raila ahead (reference the Steadman, n/k/a Ipsos, poll that Ranneberger wanted to quash as discussed in the Times story) and the continued characterizations by former Assistant Secretary Frazer over the years that the election may have only been “perceived” to have been stolen rather than actually stolen. (And of course things like IEBC Chairman Hassan’s pleading to the Kenyan Supreme Court in 2013 characterizing Odinga as a perpetual sore looser who could never accept official “results” showing his losses.) So, we have two different and potentially competing versions of American “diplomatic interests”, one at a higher level and one at a lower level.

Why was a senior administration official arriving with President Bush in Benin on Sunday February 17 complaining to the Washington Post that “Kibaki seems to assume unqualified U.S. support” seven full weeks after the twilight swearing in? Having the U.S. funded exit poll quashed, and publicly disparaged by IRI, would not seem to have been helpful in persuading the hard liners that U.S. support for Kibaki was not in fact unqualified. Was there a disconnect somewhere between the President and the Africa Bureau?

More broadly, communicating the basic policy from President Bush to President Kibaki would not seem to be so hard or take so long.  I can say that I heard at the time that there were internal differences of opinion among branches of the State Department below Secretary Rice’s level.  Perhaps this was reflected in the December 30 congratulations to Kibaki and then the quick backing away, for instance?  My late friend Joel Barkan, who was naturally close to the Embassy and USAID, and was the one election observation delegate independently selected by IRI and on Ranneberger’s list of “recommendations” as well, told me that Ranneberger was supposedly furious about the congratulations to Kibaki issued from back in the States.  This could have been true, and if so, would be significant, but I was unclear about what was really going on since Ranneberger was also that Sunday evening December 30 himself in Nairobi pressing acceptance of the results as announced by Kivuitu just before the swearing in.  So maybe being “furious” was just “spin” after the U.S. position was “walked back” in Washington on Monday?  Or maybe Ranneberger had been carrying out instructions in Nairobi and was genuinely upset about what he was told to do?

Why was the exit poll so important to Ambassador Ranneberger and why was ECK Chairman Kivuitu so against it?

Part of what has troubled me is my conversation with the USAID CTO on the phone from a polling place on the afternoon of the vote on December 27.  It had been agreed internally within IRI that we should not allow any report of our preliminary presidential numbers to leave IRI until after the polls closed at 5:00pm.  We knew that USAID wanted to get the preliminary results that afternoon, and Peter Oriare had estimated that they could be available at 3:00pm.  Within IRI we did not want to be responsible for any situation where the numbers leaked to either the Kibaki or Odinga campaigns before the poll closing, or got out in the media while people were still voting.  This was clearly “best practice”.

More specifically to our particular situation in Nairobi, we were very concerned since we had already been pressured by the Ambassador to depart from precedent to release the numbers he liked from our September poll while he sought to quash the Steadman numbers he didn’t like.  Further, when Ranneberger expressed to me in our meeting at his residence on December 15, 2007 that he wanted to take our lead delegate Connie Newman to meet privately with Kibaki aide Stanley Murage the day before the election major alarm bells had gone off in the IRI front office and it was stressed that such an improper meeting “must not happen”.  We did not know what the Ambassador was up to but knew we needed not to be involved in it.  In this context the desire not to let exit poll numbers get out while voting was still open very much included having them go to the Ambassador in particular.  We had no contractual obligation at all to get USAID an early disclosure on election day.

So observing at a polling place where we were going to close the voting day late that afternoon I got a call from the CTO looking for the preliminary numbers and I put her off.  I had numbers by text message from Peter Oriare but had not been able to study them in detail and go through them carefully with Peter and I tried to put her off.  She got frustrated and said that she would never have had us do the election observation if she thought we could not handle getting her the preliminary exit poll numbers at the same time we were observing and that “the whole reason” they did the exit poll was for “early intelligence of the Ambassador”.  I’m not against intelligence in concept, and I was working for IRI on leave from my job with a defense contractor that does intelligence work, but my purpose and job in Kenya was to support democracy and I did not appreciate being told at that late hour that there was an underlying unexpressed ulterior motive to the polling agreement all along–and such a thing was explicitly contrary to formal IRI policy as well as our USAID agreement. Why was it so important that the Ambassador have the numbers right then–“early”–instead of an hour and a half or so later when the polls closed?  No explanation of that was given.  The USAID officer ended up calling Peter Oriare, our subcontractor, and extracted the numbers directly from him.  Who did the Ambassador share them with and when?  I have no way to know.

I can say that I learned that the numbers were known and in discussion among politically aware insiders not connected to IRI over that weekend between the vote on Thursday and the ECK “results” announcement on Sunday evening.  Nonetheless, we at IRI did not even mention the exit poll when we made a “preliminary statement” for the election observation on Friday December 28 which was described in advance by the Ambassador in a cable as expected to be “largely supportive”.

The other strange thing that happened was the reaction of the late ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu to our exit poll plans.  As per the practice that had been established with our polling firm Strategic and Kivuitu from the USAID/IRI exit polls from 2002 and 2005, well in advance of the vote we had requested a standard letter of authorization from the Chairman for the polling researchers to use as a form of credential so they would not be turned away or harassed outside the polling stations.  Election day approached with no response in spite of checking back several times.  Finally just before the researchers were to deploy I got Kivuitu’s letter, which was a shock.  He essentially had written that he could not tell us not to do the exit poll, but that he considered it irresponsible and dangerous, possibly promoting violence. This warning was “out of the blue” with no explanation. Peter Oriare and I reluctantly decided that it would not be feasible to send the researchers out in the field with such an inflammatory “credential” letter and if we could not “fix” it we could not proceed.  I called the USAID officer, who was upset with me and made it clear that it would be unacceptable to cancel the exit poll, that she had a strong relationship with Kivuitu and that I should have called her sooner if there was a problem and that she would intervene directly with him.  I sent one of our most persistent and reliable local staff members to go to Kivuitu’s office with the understanding that she would not leave until she had a “cleaned up” letter.  Late in the day on Christmas Eve she got it, just in time to save the deployment for the poll.

So what was Kivuitu’s worry about the exit poll that had not been there for the IRI exit polls in 2002 or 2005?

In hindsight, we all saw that he appeared under extreme stress days later on December 30 when he retreated to the upper floors of the Kenyatta International Conference Center with a few insiders, and with all broadcasters other than the government’s KBC excluded to announce that Kibaki had won and then departed for State House for the swearing in.  When he told the media on January 1 that “people who should never have been born” had forced his hand and he did not know who had actually won, what could he have meant but that he had been threatened?

I cannot say that any of us with any familiarity with Kenyan politics have any right to claim to be “shocked” that Kivuitu would be threatened.  Peter Oriare had told me privately that he had been threatened to try to get our September IRI numbers released.

When did Kivuitu hear from the “people who should not have been born”?  Could he have been so opposed to an exit poll because he knew that he was not going to be free to report the kind of voting results that might be revealed by an independent exit poll which would then cause controversy?

Much later, but before Kivuitu’s death, I learned that Kivuitu had approached Ranneberger directly with concerns before the vote.

All very murky really, except for the relatively straightforward exit poll results themselves.

IRI in Kenya now

Fortunately for most of the long suffering local Kenyan IRI staff, and for IRI as an institution, things in a way turned up roses in the end as IRI has had much bigger programs in Kenya than our shoestring 2007-08 operation in the years since the post-election violence.  As I was leaving that spring we prepared a July ’08-June ’09 annual National Endowment for Democracy budget with a fifty percent funding increase. The IRI voter education program for 2013 was funded somewhere in the vicinity of ten times the budget for the 2007 election observation.  For 2013 NDI handled the pre-election polling (none of which was released) and the sample PVT (which I wrote about at the time), the Carter Center was back to doing the election observation, which again featured a positive preliminary statement that mattered in real time and a critical final report that was presumably much less read, ignored in the media outside of Africa Confidential and too late to change anything.  IFES continued their role as embedded with the ECK/IEBC as it has since 2001. IRI was back off the hot seat. Kenyans had another poorly administered election with a failure to use USAID funded technology to successfully transmit the vote totals from the field to Nairobi (reference the “#chickengate” scandal with succesful British prosecutions for bribes paid to IEBC officials for an understanding of how the IEBC handled its procurements for 2013), but this time without the violence, and the U.S. has been able to do business as usual with the new government without too much open angst, the “reform agenda” having come and gone.

IRI has been doing in recent years in Kenya the kind of lower key grassroots local level work that could help lay the groundwork years down the road for progress toward a better democracy if there is some future breakthrough at the “macro” level. It’s good to know that IRI’s new president is someone who has some real personal background with Kenya and also had a front row seat on the inside to the 2007-08 disaster as it unfolded.

The real question for 2015-17 is whether people in the State Department will be willing to take serious stock of the underlying details of what happened in 2007 and try to come up with a democracy assistance recovery plan for 2017 that aspires to more than the 2013 approach centered on continuing to underwrite a corrupted election authority without transparency and another election observation that reported that the elections were substandard only months after the fact.

Let me close by again quoting from my July 2008 statement to the New York Times after they called me for an interview back in Mississippi:

The local IRI staff in Kenya did an outstanding job with the hard work of the election observation and keeping the office and programming together under very trying circumstances. I am very proud of the job they did with all of our programming. The exit poll was primarily handled by Strategic and UCSD and myself—if it failed in its execution that would be my responsibility and not that of anyone else in the office. As far as the decisions regarding whether or not to disclose the results to the Kenyan public, those were made in Washington and were outside the control of the local staff.