Did the competing election crisis triggered by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on the morning of Kenya’s 2007 vote contribute to initial missteps in US response to fraud?

I decided to write this post to follow up an exchange on this topic on Twitter triggered by the 14th anniversary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as she campaigned as opposition leader in Pakistan.  I struck a nerve with some Kenyans. The point is not to create excuses but rather as I have always done, to try to understand why things happened as they did so that mistakes become learning tools.

The question is one that was always in the back of my mind but no one has ever raised it with me, nor have I heard it discussed.  I have known over the years, and it should have been obvious to any acute outside observer, that there were differences of opinion within the State Department as to the proper policy response to Kenya’s 2007 election and it seems that different officials at different levels and times took different approaches.

Kenya election State Department declassified cable Condeleeza Rice Javier Solana power sharing Mwai Kibaki Rail

Remember the chronology:

December 18 – Published interview with Ranneberger says he anticipates “free and fair” election (in spite of knowing that US-funded Results Transmission computers had been shelved by Electoral Commission of Kenya and describing in a December 24 cable “credible reports” of efforts to orchestrate rigging in Odinga’s Langata Constituency which would eliminate him as a presidential candidate, having told me on December 15 that “people were saying” that Raila could be defeated in Langata.).

December 27 – Kenya votes; the International Republican Institute front office team in Kenya for the Election Observation Mission were due to fly on from Kenya to Pakistan to observe the election planned for January 8; we learn the news of the Benazir Bhutto assassination on the way to “open” the polls in Nairobi.

December 28 – Ranneberger cable says election went well, although fraud could arise in tally.  He had opined in the December 24 cable that “the outside chance that widespread fraud would force us to call into question the result would be enormously damaging” to U.S. interests, although both the leading candidates were “friendly to the US”.

December 28 – 30 – Fraud arises in tally at ECK headquarters, witnessed by Ranneberger along with EU Chief Observer.

December 30 – ECK resumes suspended count and holds restricted announcement of Kibaki win, followed quickly by twilight swearing in at State House; Ranneberger publicly encourages Kenyans to accept ECK results; live broadcasting suspended, congratulations to Kibaki also issued by spokesman for Main State Department/US while UK and EU question results.

December 31 – (Monday morning) State Department spokesman in Washington withdraws congratulations.

January 2 – Ranneberger’s cable to Washington documents that Ambassador witnessed fraud in the tally: “much can happen between the casting of votes and the final tabulation of ballots and it did” (and that between the December 28 and January 2 cables, Ranneberger held daily conversations with Assistant Secretary Frazer and December 29 and 31 conference calls with the National Security Council and Frazer).

January 3 – Secretary of State Rice, along with Ranneberger, is publicly calling for negotiated power sharing between Kibaki and Odinga. EU joins, following UK, having previously called for remedial action for election fraud (see declassified Rice cable above).

[“Peace deal” is eventually signed on February 28, 2008 which results in limited power sharing with Odinga as Prime Minister and ODM getting some cabinet portfolios and support by Kibaki and Odinga for new constitution that establishes county governments and devolves some powers, while eliminating Prime Minister position; impunity for election fraud and post election violence enshrined on de facto basis. Exit poll funded by USAID as “vote verification” tool showing Odinga win is released by UCSD in July and by IRI in August.]

Given the context of potential turmoil in nuclear armed Pakistan, bordering the escalating war in Afghanistan, during the Iraq “surge”, it could be imagined that those with responsibility for the whole of CENTCOM’s Area of Operations which included Kenya at the time, or even the entire globe in the case of the State Department, might have been initially more reliant on the Ambassador and the Africa Bureau and a little slower to realize that the election had in fact fallen to fraud such that we were “forced to question” the ECK’s “results” [which never were even published].