The United States and other donors to the IEBC must not let (again) the power of incumbency in Kenya obscure the dangers of “fear and loathing” on the campaign trail

This is a straightforward lesson.  We have acted in this movie in Kenya before.
(To refresh, here is my piece “The Debacle of 2007: How Kenyan politics was frozen and an election was stolen with U.S. connivance” in The Elephant.)

Mistakes will be made when we are out and about involved in our way in the world. (Most conspicuously, per Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  This recognition of error obtained consensus among at least the top dozen Republican candidates and the top four Democrats so it seems to be a rare “given” that we should not have to argue about now.)

We cannot undo the past but at the very least we have a moral responsibility to take cognizance of (very) recent history in Kenya involving many of the very same Kenyan ethnic/commercial/political leaders and a continuity of institutional and individual players and assumed interests of the United States as well.  Our choices have consequences, too.

We are in denial if we pretend that we did not fail abjectly (to the extent we even tried really) to effectively foster any type of justice in Kenya for the 2008 Post Election Violence.  If we can excuse our asserted complacency in 2007 on the argument that the full magnitude of the violence was unprecedented (in spite of the 1992 and 1997 “campaigns”) we certainly do not have that excuse this time.

You cannot but hear bitter strident speech about Kenya’s presidential election from Kenya’s politicians, and from Kenya’s journalists, lawyers, pundits, publishers, moguls, ranchers and hustlers (of whatever ethnic or national origin or income).   Compared to 2007 it is more aggressive and open and it is coming in some key part directly from the President and even more so from those very close to him and from the Deputy President.

In 2007 Mwai Kibaki and Moody Awori were not using the “bully pupit” of the Presidency and Vice Presidency to openly disparage and ridicule those with less power (even though Kibaki was obviously not in hindsight of any mind to actually risk being found to have lost the election by the ECK).

Likewise, during that campaign Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, on opposite sides of the presidential campaign once “retired President” Moi realigned to support Kibaki mid-year, were far more restrained in their widely public statements as candidates

for MP and ethnic political leaders (regardless of what they were saying and doing more privately).

But that was a more genteel era in Kenyan public life (just as it was a more genteel time in the United States and Europe).  There were no Facebook ads or “news” in that 2007 Kenyan campaign or WhatsApp. The primary digital communication in 2007 was SMS which was available to the Government of Kenya (as well as to its security partners it has been widely reported).

In the 2007 campaign there was nothing like the Msando murder – the ECK just shelved the results transmission technology before the vote and nothing much was said publicly about it.  (While in the 2012/2013 race the violent death of the PNU leader and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti in a helicopter crash could have been a source of tension, it was early enough in the pro-government nomination phase that it turned out to be in a way arguably a more stabilizing rather than disruptive factor as Uhuru then consolidated his support as Kibaki’s heir.) Given Kenya’s political history it seems a stretch to ask Kenyans who are not fully pre-sold on a re-election not to have serious reservations about the Msando murder unless and until the case is solved.

There are many other things different in 2017 in Kenya than in 2007.  The new Constitution and the limited devolution thereunder are the features of experimental reforms heavily supported by the United States Government in the Obama Administration  (while actively opposed by other Americans, including the family of now-Trump defense lawyer Jay Sekolow, as an example.)

Generally speaking we Americans like to talk about the things that we are able to give ourselves credit for and since “we” backed the reform Constitution we stress that in noting the differences between 2007 and 2017.  (Funny how we are human that way!)  That sort of self-promotion is probably inevitable and not necessarily bad in itself, but we must not fool ourselves into mistaking it for more objective fact-driven analysis.

Yes, the consequences of stridency and prejudice–fear and loathing–both “genuine” and purely cynical, and all shades between, will certainly be different in October’s “fresh election” for the Kenyan presidency than the consequences of the ethnic tension that existed in December 2007.  Yes, there is “devolution”.  Yes, like in 2013 William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta are aligned as the Uhuruto partnership as Ruto came back to the fold early in Kibaki’s second presidential term under the “Government of National Unity”.   Nonetheless, the longer future is much more conspicuously in play in 2017 than in the transitional election of 2013.  And unlike in 2013, the Judiciary as an institution is under ethnicly tuned and well financed assault. (Update: see “Itumbi in the soupDaily Nation 22 Sept. 2017)

I cannot imagine that after a Supreme Court decision that declined to chastise the much more open use of public resources in the Presidential campaign than in 2007 anyone supporting the Opposition now would expect to any comparably competitive opportunity before 2027 at the best (if term limits hold and some other catalyst recreates a democratic opening in the spirit of 2002).  Even assuming the attacks on the Judiary do no further damage than they already have.  In many ways the stakes are higher in 2017 than they were in 2007 as well as in 2013 (for reasons much beyond Raila Odinga individually).

While compared to 2008, the context of much of the violence in Eldoret and Nakuru would not have the same logic in 2017, much of what happened in Nairobi, Naivasha, Kisumu and elsewhere could, especially if one reflects seriously on the popular understanding of the 2007-08 roles of the now-President and Deputy President among their most ardent base of ethnic supporters.  And you see the use of the arms of the Kenyan Police Service following the August 8 vote and the pre-vote show of massive force by the Government.

If I had to guess, the likelihood of the consequences of the fear and loathing this time are more loss of freedom rather than directly life and property.  Less graphic, far less “newsworthy” in our visual and visceral era here in the West, less scary for expats who are pretty well insulated either way.  Of less concern by far to global investors and global or foreign business enterprises (privately or state owned).  Of less concern to the Anglo-American and European “national security” community: the State and Defense Departments, the Foreign Offices and Defense Ministries, etc.  But it may again break the hearts of the very many of us who care about other things, too.

But then, I did not anticipate the 2008 post election violence while living very much within the election itself in Nairobi that year.  Nor we are told did the diplomats I interacted with in Kenya or those back in Washington.  So I claim no special gift of prognostication.

See Muthoni Wanyeki’s “The facade is off: prepare for the rough ride ahead” in The East African.