Raila owes me for keeping the vote count verification Exit Poll showing him leading in 2007 from “going away”, but I did not do it for him personally

Over the years carrying my torch as a witness to what happened on my watch in democracy assistance in Kenya in 2007-08, I have always tried to be mindful of the notion that it has not been my business who Kenyan voters chose, including how they voted in the subsequent 2013, 2017 and 2022 elections in which Raila has continued to be a leading candidate. Rather, my job in 2007-08, and my purpose since, has been to address the facts honestly and support the democratic process so that the choices actually made by Kenyan voters themselves would be honored.

Thus, keeping the 2007 Exit Poll from meeting an untimely demise because it was diplomatically inconvenient was not a matter of “supporting” Raila versus Kibaki as a candidate or politician, but rather doing my job to support the democratic process and “observe” the election with integrity.

There was a little bit more involved in preserving the hope that the Exit Poll would be released and published during the early months of 2008 when I was finishing out my “public service leave” as International Republican Institute Resident Director for East Africa than I have written about over the years.  It is probably time to tell the story.

In summary, after the decision was made in Washington to my surprise and disappointment not to release the Exit Poll showing Raila winning by almost six points, there was still the notion that the original polling forms would be sent to Washington and the original data evaluated and re-entered in digital form to determine whether there were actual doubts or anomalies to justify the announcement that the poll was “invalid”. Initially, this was going to happen when staff from our Nairobi office traveled to Washington in March for IRI’s annual global meeting.  The meeting was intended to be mandatory for me as a Country Director and I was asked on behalf of IRI’s President to prepare a presentation on the process of dealing with the Exit Poll and the release decision.  I explained to my boss, the Africa Director, that this was a terrible idea since I emphatically objected to the decision to say the poll was “invalid” and not release it, but I did not want to get up in front of a bunch of young idealistic IRI employees working around the world and say that, nor surely did “the front office” want me to. I also had a major family conflict for the meeting which had been moved because someone in Washington had forgotten to make hotel reservations.  Since my leave from my job in the States was up June 1 and I had to move back in May anyway, I was comfortable declining and was able to beg off.

The original survey forms, which were in locked storage at the Country Director residence near our office, were going to be delivered to Washington by the other staff members making the trip.  But then those instructions were cancelled and there was no operative plan to re-enter the data or otherwise review the original forms in Washington or elsewhere.  The researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) who were the critical consultants for the USAID-funded poll and had contributed additional funding supplementing that provided by USAID, wanted to do the work, but IRI Washington did not want to let them without modifying their contract.  IRI would pay  $10,000 as compensation for the additional work, the same sum as the funding Dr. Clark Gibson of UCSD had provided pre-election, but UCSD would have to surrender the right to publish the results after a six month exclusive period for IRI that was provided in the original pre-election contract.  Dr. Gibson, as he told the New York Times declined because he thought “they were trying to shut me up”.

Given the fact that there was no path forward to complete the polling program and answer the questions that had been raised back in Washington without reference to the original data, I had to make a choice as Chief of Party for the polling program between honoring the existing contract with Dr. Gibson of UCSD or breaching it to follow instructions from my IRI superiors.  I elected to honor the program and the contract (and the election process itself as I saw it) and allowed the UCSD graduate student researcher to take possession of the survey forms (I had sent him, along with my wife, to retrieve them from the polling firm and bring them for safekeeping at the residence once things got “hot” when IRI announced from Washington that the poll was “invalid” and would not be released.  As but one example of what I was concerned about, the possibility of a re-count of the underlying vote in the December 27 election had been eliminated, allegedly, by a fire in the warehouse where the ECK stored the ballot boxes just after the vote.)

Thus UCSD was able to verify the poll and release the results in presentations in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Johns Hopkins University in July 2008 after the end of the six month embargo. And USAID reported in their Frontline newletter that the exit poll suggested that the wrong winner had been named by the ECK.

The personal drama was that in April when I was working from the residence (my successor was in place running the office by then but had not yet been approved by USAID as Chief of Party so I was still needed for public meetings and reports and such) when I got a call from my Africa Director in Washington that my successor had not been able to find the survey forms in the office.  I explained that they had never been taken to the office, which seemed obviously less secure, so we had taken them to the residence.  That was a satisfactory answer and nothing further was said.  The fact that the forms were in San Diego at that moment was a “didn’t ask, didn’t tell).

In May I was to turn over the residence to my successor.  The UCSD researcher was bringing the survey forms back from San Diego with him and put the boxes in checked baggage which was tied up in a big delay at Heathrow in London, so he arrived without them as I was getting ready to vacate the residence.  In the context of the tension between myself and the Ambassador and the non-release of the Exit Poll, I threw myself my own going away party with my family and the staff that reported to me, but I did get invited to a farewell dinner by the Serbian Ambassador and his wife who managed the office for both the East Africa programs and Sudan. Starting out with a homemade Serbian aperitif I felt a bit woozy after a sip and excused myself. I woke up a few minutes later on the floor of the restroom with a bit of blood on my forehead from striking the sink on the way down.

A cab was called to take me to Aga Khan hospital where I recovered for a few days while my wife and kids scrambled to finish getting everything out of the residence for turnover in my absence and I hoped that the boxes of survey forms would arrive in time to be back in the residence for my successor.  After a few anxious days the boxes arrived in the nick of time and I was soon out of the hospital and off with the family for a couple of weeks in Uganda before going back to Mississippi and my job as a lawyer in the defense industry. Testing at the hospital indicated that I did not have malaria, just some similar but completely temporary symptoms of who-knows-what.

At some point, IRI ended up hiring a survey firm in Oklahoma to review the Exit Poll and released it themselves in August 2008 just before the UCSD researchers testified about it to the Kreigler Commission which was conceptually charged with investigating the dispute as to the facts of the vote for president.  Raila wrote about how important the Exit Poll was to him in his autobiography, “The Flame of Freedom”.  He got part of the story wrong, but since he has continued to be a candidate for president over the succeeding elections, it has been in his interest not to be overly fastidious about all the details, just as the important thing for current democracy assistance efforts is keep learning and adapting from the lessons that become available.

If Raila ends up being president this time, I hope he does a great job in the spirit that his most loyal friends and supporters, some of whom are also my friends, have always expected.  I also hope it is because he gets the most votes in a free and fair election that is not marred by violence or more corruption than we have already seen.

“Operation Enduring Witness”

“Operation Enduring Witness” is my new name for what I am going to do with this AFRICOMMONS Blog going forward–basically sustain and expand my own witness about what I saw and heard and what happened around me in the Kenyan election in 2007 and its aftermath.  To hold my ground in “The War for History“.

During my time as Resident Director for East Africa at the International Republican Institute, from mid-2007 to mid-2008, I was on unpaid “public service leave” from my job as an attorney for one of the major defense contractors where I worked on U.S. Navy surface ship construction contracts, to which I returned during the early years of this blog.

As the title “AFRICOMMONS” itself is a play on AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, (announced as a new initiative by the Bush Administration in 2006 and becoming operational in October 2007 during my time in Kenya, initially as a subcommand of the European Command, EUCOM, then as a separate combatant command in October 2008), “Operation Enduring Witness” is a play on “Operation Enduring Freedom”, described here by the Naval History and Heritage Command:

In response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, Operation Enduring Freedom officially began 7 October 2001 with American and British bombing strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Initially, the Taliban was removed from power and al-Qaeda was seriously crippled, but forces continually dealt with a stubborn Taliban insurgency, infrastructure rebuilding and corruption among the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, and Afghan Border Police.

 

On 2 May 2011, U.S. Navy SEALS launched a raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of the September 11th terrorist’s attacks (O’Rourke). Operation Enduring Freedom officially ended 28 December 2014, although coalition forces remain on the ground to assist with training Afghan security forces (Torreon).

The U.S. Navy had three Medal of Honor recipients during Operation Enduring Freedom, all Navy SEALS, Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers Jr. and Master Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski.

 

References

O’Rourke, Ronald. 2015. “Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations: Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Report for Congress (November 6): 1.

Torreon, Barbara. 2016. “U.S. Periods of War and Dates of Recent Conflicts.” Congressional Research Report for Congress (September 29): 6–7.

Part of my inspiration to move my family overseas to work in peaceful (“non-kinetic”) democracy assistance was seeing the unfolding of the Iraq war (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”) from inside the defense community, followed by my experience as an Election Observer for IRI in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.  Witnessing a stolen election unwind into violence “on my watch” in Kenya was, needless to say, a life changing experience.

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 of 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 the quoted pieces in 2011 Kenya, during Kibaki’s second term and with support of his then-“Government of National Unity” partner Prime Minister Raila Odinga, invaded the Jubaland region of Somalia and joined the ongoing war approaching its fifth year. The next year, 2012, the Kenya Defense Forces were formally incorporated under AMISOM for donor 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, as Amb. Ranneberger described it in an April 2007 cable, 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.