More context: what happened between Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 that might have changed State Department priorities on democratic reform in Kenya and Kibaki’s re-election?

Kenyans going for water in Eastern Province with jerry cans on red dirt

Kenyans going for water

One key event: the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006.

See my post from September 2011: David Axe on “America’s Somalia Experiment”–a timely reminder of policy in the Horn of Africa in 2007-08. Quoting Axe in The Diplomat:

The ICU didn’t explicitly advocate terrorism, and there were probably only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Somalia at the time. But that nuance was lost on the George W. Bush Administration. Washington pledged support for the Ethiopian attack, including ‘intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,’ according to USA Today.

With this backing, plus air cover provided by US AC-130 gunships and carrier-based fighters and assistance on the ground by US Special Forces, the Ethiopian army launched a Blitzkrieg-style assault on Somalia in December 2006.

Ethiopian tanks quickly routed the ICU’s lightly armed fighters. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told then-US Central Commander boss Gen. John Abizaid in 2007.

The Bush Administration agreed with that assessment, at least initially. And the proxy approach to African security challenges quickly became central to Washington’s policy for the continent. . . .

And here is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (of the Foundation for Defense od Democracies) and Daniel Twombly on America’s 4-prong strategy for Somalia” in The Atlantic from October 2011:

American national security planners have viewed Somalia as strategically significant for some time. In 1999, for example, staffers on the National Security Council suggested that Osama bin Laden’s most likely destination was Somalia if he lost the Taliban’s protection in Afghanistan. But U.S. interest in the country has appeared to grow dramatically since 2006, when an Islamist group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured the capital of Mogadishu and soon after made a number of strategic gains. Late that year, the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion designed to push back the ICU. Though Ethiopia rapidly reversed much of the ICU’s geographic gains, it wasn’t able to prevent a powerful insurgency from taking root.

Al-Shabaab emerged as a force distinct from the ICU during the course of the insurgency; not only was this new group more hardline in ideology, but a number of its leaders openly declared their support for al-Qaeda. As Ethiopia withdrew and was replaced by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), al-Shabaab emerged as the country’s dominant insurgent force. It soon took control of significant swathes of territory in southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab even established governorates in some of the areas where it was dominant. During much of this period, the U.S. lacked a real plan for the region. America tried to help AMISOM protect Somalia’s UN-recognized transitional federal government from being wiped out by al-Shabaab, but otherwise lacked a strategy to reverse the jihadi group’s gains.

In 2006-2008, the Bush Administration disclaimed significant involvement in the Ethiopian invasion to the American public and others interested. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer even asserted that we told the Ethiopians not to do it. Over time the work of journalists and scholars (and document leaks) led to an established conventional wisdom that what we were told in that regard was not actually true, as reflected in the Axe and Gartenstein-Ross, Twombly pieces from 2011.

Update: For further specific discussion, see Ronan Farrow’s new book, The War on Peace; The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Chapter 19, “The White Beast”.

At the time of th quoted pieces in 2011 Kenya, during Kibaki’s second term and with support of his now-“Government of National Unity” partner Prime Minister Raila Odinga, invaded the Jubaland region of Somalia and joined the ongoing war approaching its fifth year and the next year were formally incorporated under AMISOM for cost reimbursement.

Today the war continues, and the third American administration involved has increased direct U.S. strikes and added some more support troops. There has been significant progress in some respects in terms of stability and we can certainly hope that some day down the road the new Somali Federal Government will be self-sustainable. It is a formally Islamist government but it aspires to aspects of democratization that would see an eventual status quo that would differ from the old ICU or other regional governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar, for example.

See this from Saferworld, an NGO supporting democratization in Somalia and Somaliland.

As for Kenya, its politics were frozen by the openly stolen election in 2007 as I wrote last year in The Elephant. The leading figures now were the leading figures during the murder and mayhem ten years ago. The backsliding has not led to complete reversion to the “faux multipartism” of Moi’s last decade in office, but the ruling Jubilee Party is consolidating hegemony nationally. Odinga, having raised a ruckus about the lack of electoral reforms, boycotting the presidential re-run after his Supreme Court victory nullified the August 2017 election, eventually conceded through a “handshake” with Uhuru Kenyatta and “got right” with Kenya’s donors, led by the U.S., who were publicly most focused on economic matters (and presumably maintained the foremost underlying concern with war?).

“Correlation does not prove causation.” The circumstantial evidence suggesting that the invasion to displace the ICU in Somalia–with an accompanying increase in military cooperation and access from Kenya–might explain the pivot in U.S. policy to “building capital” with Kibaki and away from fighting corruption and reforming the election process might not be explanatory. But it seems to make sense in the context of the time, place and people involved.

My Joel Barkan tribute

I have been very much saddened by the sudden passing of Joel Barkan, the dean of American Kenya experts and a real friend to me during these years since we got together through the 2007 Kenyan election tragedy. Joel and his career are eloquently remembered here by his colleagues at CSIS–please take a moment for this.

Joel and I last corresponded two days before he died from a pulmonary embolism on January 10. He was having a wonderful time with his family in Mexico City and looking forward to going on to Colorado to ski. I was getting ready to observe the referendum in Egypt and got a chance to thank him again for providing me an introduction to the leadership of Democracy International a few years ago. Joel was always palpably excited about the time he and his wife Sandy got to spend with their adult children and I know that he had a fulfilling family life as well as an amazingly productive career. It’s just hard to accept that he is suddenly not here and I want to express my deepest condolences both to his family and to those many friends who knew him so much longer than I was privileged to.

It is especially sad that two of the friends that I came to admire and respect through the 2007 Kenyan exit poll saga have now passed away. See my tribute to Dr. Peter Oriare here.

When then-Ambassador Ranneberger listed the people he wanted the International Republican Institute to invite to observe the 2007 Kenyan election, Joel was the only person on both the Ambassador’s list and on IRI’s. Fortunately Joel agreed to come for the election and was our primary Kenya expert for our observation mission. On January 10, 2008, during the post election violence with no negotiation process under way, Joel was a panelist at a well-attended and high profile Washington event, Kenya: A Post Election Assessment, (program information and the video here) at the Wilson Center and co-sponsored by CSIS. Joel cited the IRI/USAID exit poll suggesting an opposition win, noting that it was “unfortunate” that it had not been released, although it had been covered by Slate magazine. IRI was chagrined–for whatever reason–that the exit poll had been brought into the discussion in Washington; I explained to the IRI Washington office that I had provided Joel the information on the embargoed poll results when he asked about them since he was our subject matter expert on the election observation and another member of the delegation had already gotten themselves engaged on the poll. Later, Joel supported the formal release of the poll results by the University of California, San Diego, researchers at CSIS once IRI’s contractual six month period of exclusivity with the University were up, in spite of pressure to stop it. IRI finally published the poll themselves the next month, but Joel still got attacked for doing what he thought was the only right and appropriate thing. Fortunately, Joel had thick skin and deep respect from those who knew him and his work.

Ironically, perhaps, it was Joel who served as the initial Democracy and Governance advisor for USAID for East Africa back in 1992 when IRI was selected to observe the initial post Cold War multi-party election in Kenya. Joel sent me a copy of Ambassador Smith Hempstone’s memoir, Rogue Ambassador from those years when he served as President George H.W. Bush’s political appointee in Nairobi. Hempstone explains that he had recommended to Moi that NDI be invited to observe that election. Moi refused to accept NDI but would agree to IRI. (Although Hempstone’s book does not mention it, during that 1992 election and into the next year Moi was represented in the United States by famed GOP consultant Charlie Black. Black was IRI Chairman McCain’s consultant in his own presidential bid in the US. during the 2008 contretemps in Kenya. With the average American democracy assistance worker too young to have much memory of the Cold War, much less have played in it, Joel’s institutional memory of both Kenyan politics and American policy was a tremendous resource, freely shared with those who cared about being right about Kenya.)

So Joel and I bonded initially over the shared experience of watching the post-vote fiasco unfold at the Electoral Commission of Kenya, then the shared conviction that a mistake was being made by not releasing the exit poll, and ultimately the common experience of attracting opprobrium for being seen as out of step with powers that were at IRI. He taught me a great deal, and will inspire me always. I will continue to miss him.