“And the beat(ings) go on . . .”; as 2007 bleeds into 2013, what would it take for Human Rights Watch and others to make Kenyan politics less deadly?

The latest Kenya release from Human Rights Watch, dated yesterday, decries the terrible beating of Kenyan activist Okiya Omtatah Okoiti.

Omtatah, executive director of Kenyans for Justice and Development (KEJUDE) Trust, a local NGO that advocates for transparency and accountability, was attacked by two unidentified men in central Nairobi. He lost six teeth and suffered serious injuries to his face and the back of his head, which required surgery. Omtatah told Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 that the attackers demanded that he withdraw a lawsuit he filed to demand accountability in the procurement of biometric voter registration (BVR) kits because of corruption associated with the process.

“This vicious attack was clearly meant not just to intimidate Omtatah but to seriously injure him – and perhaps even to kill him,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The aim seems to be to stop his work on corruption in the procurement of biometric voter registration kits for the upcoming elections.”

Certainly this is a crucial and timely issue in working toward integrity in the upcoming Kenyan election and in protecting an activist who took a big risk in pursuing legal action against election-related corruption. So kudos to Human Rights Watch and Article 19 for calling attention to the attack. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that anything will actually happen as a result of this statement that “[t]he Kenyan authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate a serious physical assault . . . and bring appropriate charges.” Of course, they should–that goes without saying; of course. they won’t.

Why won’t they? Are they confident they can wait it out and the outside actors and international players who care about Omtatah now will move on to the next outrage, the next victim, without really disrupting the vicious cycle?

Why would I suggest this? Not to be gratuitously critical of Human Rights Watch or any of the many organizations trying to support human rights defenders. Rather I say this on the basis of my own hard-earned experience with well-intentioned failure in dealing with election fraud and violence in Kenya in 2007/08. I moved my family to Kenya for a year to help support democracy in the last election cycle–we were able to take in a couple of displaced families for a few months after the election, and help a few others a bit, but nothing that I did in my NGO work really changed anything as far as upholding democracy. My organization, IRI, issued a report noting the election fraud, in July 2008, and in August 2008 released the exit poll showing that voters at the polls on election day reported favoring the opposition, before the mark-ups of the tallies for the incumbent at the Electoral Commission in Nairobi afterwards. But these reports were months too late to really matter. It is going to take more to make a difference in the brutal world of Kenyan politics.

So how does Human Rights Watch yesterday describe what happened with the 2007/08 election situation:
(more…)

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