A Kenyan friend recently checked in to ask what I had written about the Kenyan election. I had to say “very little”. I have been committed to my more unique role as a witness to what went wrong in 2007-08 and tried to avoid the risk of being just another opinionated outsider missing the real conduct and motivations of the opaque competition for power through the election.
Nonetheless, I did send a private email memo to a few friends in Kenya and Washington back on May 15, 2022 (shortly before Raila and Ruto chose running mates) titled “A Few Thoughts on the Kenyan Election”:
1. First big election in Africa after the end of the Post-Cold War peace in Europe.
2. In this environment, the democratic Western players are less able to credibly claim to speak for a notional international community.
3. So on balance, not much reason to indulge Kenyatta now the way we did Kibaki in 2007. Unless we can be sure that the Kenyattas have a deal with Ruto to assure no major violence, why would we signal that we would be willing to look the other way if they steal it for Raila? Major violence would be riskier and more unpredictable now than back in 2007. On the other hand, if they do steal it, the last thing we would want to do is risk instabilty on behalf of a few votes for Wm. Ruto.
4. Obviously Obama and Trump and their administrations overestimated Uhuru for 15 years, but if we really cared about the details of Kenyan politics we would have gotten serious about injecting some competence into Kenyatta’s BBI fiasco.
5. There are still a few weeks left in a 4 1/2 year campaign so Raila could get it together, but who really thinks that’s highly likely? Under the circumstances, it isn’t that hard to see why ordinary Kenyans would be attracted to a candidate who is even more corrupt and more ruthlessly ambitious, but presents as having some basic discipline and competence, among the actual choices. Especially if you have lived through recent American elections.
6. The American humorist Will Rogers (from the era of my grandparents on the small family farm in Kansas during the Great Depression) was famous for the phrase: “I never met a man I didn’t like”. We have never met a President of Kenya we didn’t like.
Just my honest, private thoughts at the time, for what it is worth.
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 for the March meeting. 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 data 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.)
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 our IRI 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 the tile 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 hoped. 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.
Saskia Brechenmacher and Nanjira Sambuli have released an excellent pre-election report for the Carnegie Endowment’s Pivotal Elections in Africa series produced jointly by Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Africa Program.
Moreover, as other analysts have noted, a recurring pattern of dealmaking between political insiders also serves to protect the economic and political power of a narrow elite class, while undermining more meaningful forms of political accountability. Politicians have incentives to mobilize voters to secure their place in elite bargains; yet once those bargains are struck, the needs of communities tend to fall by the wayside at the expense of elite interests. This pattern helps explain why inequality in the country has spiraled: according to Oxfam, “the number of super-rich in Kenya is one of the fastest growing in the world,” with “less than 0.1 [percent] of the population . . . own[ing] more wealth than the bottom 99.9 [percent].”
As the International Republican Institute Country Director in 2007-2008, I was an “insider” of sorts in the disastrous Kenyan election in December and its aftermath because I was a privileged outsider by virtue of my job. A middle class lawyer such as myself who was a Kenyan could have only hoped at best to have some real access to one side or the other. I was both bound by a written IRI code of conduct and my own ethics to protect the private conversations I had with politicians in the context of their seeking the benefits of our democracy assistance programing or otherwise communicating to me because of that role that I was in.
Since I have practiced law as my career except for my year of leave to work for IRI in Kenya, you could say that I keep people’s secrets for a living, so I do not find it hard or unusual, whatever the temptations.
Over the years in this blog I have written the stories of a few very important conversations I had in the pre- and post- election environment with leading Kenyan political figures, but I have always been careful to anonymize them so that the point can be shared for learning purposes without calling out the individual.
For separate but related reasons, I have also avoided using the names of my fellow IRI employees and employees at USAID and the State Department as best I can. The reason for that is so that I was not at risk of doing to anyone else what IRI did to me in response to my being interviewed by The New York Times about the failed election and our exit poll program: what you might call a “poisoning by Google”. This is why I try never to use the names, as opposed to occasionally the titles, of others involved except the Ambassador himself. Sort of a “turn the other cheek” thing, and also an attempt to do no more harm than necessary to honor the truth. This has helped me keep as many personal friendships as possible over the years even if the details of the kinds of things I have written about here about what happened with that election in Kenya have always remained completely off limits with my former colleagues and most everyone who was in my government.
In May 2007 I was getting ready to move and reading up on Kenyan politics and history, and talking to people associated currently or previously with the International Republican Institute who knew something about the practical aspects of living and working in Nairobi, which was not as common a thing for Americans then as now.
At my job as Senior Counsel with the big defense contractor Northrop Grumman I was working to close a “Gulf Opportunity Zone” bond issue for “facilities modernization” at The State (of Mississippi) Shipyard at Pascagoula which was under long term lease to the company with rent tied to bond debt. We were recovering and improving in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I was also Program Counsel for the Amphibious Assault Carrier program, in which we had a series of contracts for a low “ten figure” sum to build a Navy ship that carried a Marine Expeditionary Unit to wherever they might need to go, with a few helicopters, airplanes and landing vehicles, a hospital and such.
The idea of doing non-profit foreign assistance work was influenced by several things, most especially living through the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A few weeks before the hurricane hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast I had served as an Election Observer for IRI in Kyrgyzstan, and as the youngest and most expendable delegate I had had a grand adventure in Batken in the Ferghana Valley and found the experience of supporting a peaceful election in a troubled region as a counterpoint to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be inspiring. Spending some time in an area that was poor and economically regressing also gave me a different perspective on the context of the devastation we soon faced back home from Hurricane Katrina, where in spite of the initial failures we received billions of dollars in assistance. Even though it was all grossly inefficient, Washington turned on the spigot. More importantly people from around the country and even around the world came to help “on the ground”, sacrificially, and many of my friends, in particular in my church congregation, did wonders helping those in need while most of my impact involved my work at the shipyard. All told, I was primed to “do something” intended to be helpful and in particular in the “less rich” world.
It was in this context that I asked for “public service leave” to take the position of Resident Director for East Africa for IRI. I asked for 18-24 months of unpaid leave, with the expectation that I would have to hope that a spot was available somewhere within the company’s law department after concluding at IRI. I got 6 months of job-protected leave instead, extended at IRI’s request that fall to a full year.
If I had had the background and experience, I might have sought to work in some other area like agriculture. I had a background in practical party politics which had led to the opportunities to volunteer with IRI. There was another context for working in democracy assistance specifically though, which was the Iraq war. I was one of those that had not really been persuaded by the case to invade–it seemed like a “hail mary” so to speak that only made sense in the face of the kind of clear imminent threat that did not seem to be demonstrated. Likewise, the general “Bush Doctrine” did not seem to me to be consistent with the weight of decisions of war and peace that were required by my Christian values. By 2005 most Republicans from Washington could admit when they let their hair down overseas that we had made a mistake even if it would be another eleven years before they felt willing to say so publicly in response to Donald Trump’s campaign in the Republican primaries.
At some level, I thought we made the mistake on Iraq because too many of the people who really knew better in Washington in 2002 and 2003–the kind of people who had the experience and regional knowledge that I knew outside of Washington–“went along to go along” rather than exercise their best judgment.
So given my reasons for being in Kenya in the first place, and my own experience watching policy trainwrecks in Washington from the field, I was never going to be the guy to delegate my own responsibilities to do my own job to others, such as the Ambassador, who were not in my chain of command and had different roles to play and different perspectives about the Kenyan election. Nor was I going to willingly personally implicate myself in communicating things that I did not consider to be true when my job as Chief of Party for democracy assistance programs did not countenance “looking and pointing the other way” for extraneous reasons when confronted with election fraud.
I have found some agreement from a range of people in Washington with my observation that “the soft underbelly of American national security is careerism”. Since I wasn’t in Kenya for IRI because “it was the best job I could get in the Republican Party” or because I wanted to switch careers to try to climb the ladder in U.S. foreign policy in Washington, I did not have the same temptations that others might have had to let myself get steamrolled by the Ambassador or others who did not want to recognize inconvenient facts about the Kenyan election that I had a responsibility to deal with. Likewise, being an experienced middle aged lawyer used to dealing with government contracts made a great deal of difference, as did being the father of young children whom wanted to be able to explain myself to in years to come.
The pressures that Somaliland faces will only increase in the months and years ahead. The ramifications of the possible dissolution of Ethiopia as a cohesive state will reverberate across the Horn of Africa. Somaliland, like other Horn of Africa nations, will be hard pressed to insulate itself from the fallout from the fragmentation of Africa’s second most populous country. Ethiopia’s civil war is also occurring at a time when developing and developed nations alike face rising energy costs and food inflation, as well as ongoing economic disruptions resulting from responses to COVID-19. Such challenges will test every country in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
More than ever, Somaliland deserves and needs international recognition for the great strides it has made to establish a democratic and durable government. The United States has an opportunity to solidify its relationship with a nation that has a proven record of adhering to the values and forms of governance that it supports. However, the window on this opportunity is likely to close. At some point in the near future, circumstances and necessity will force Somalilanders to choose a side. Aid from China may prove more convincing than empty rhetoric from Washington.
Following the paper “The U.S. Should Recognize Somaliland” by Joshua Meservey, the Heritage Foundation’s lead Africa analyst published in October, it is clear that there is real movement on the conservative side of the Washington foreign policy establishment for some U.S. initiative on the recognition issue, in spite of the reduced public engagement with Somaliland during the Trump Administration when the D.C. right had some real direct power in the various bureaucracies as well as the White House and top levels at State and Defense.
From a 2017 release in response to my 2009 Freedom of Information Act request on the Exit Poll showing an Opposition win in Kenya’s 2007 Presidential election:
R 170924Z APR 07 FM AMEMBASSY NAIROBI TO SECSTATE WASHDC 9024
FOR AF/E AND INR/AA
SUBJECT: ACHIEVING USG GOALS IN KENYA’S ELECTION
12. (U) Ongoing Assistance: USAID/Kenya has ongoing support in the areas of electoral administration, public opinion polling and political party strengthening. Program activities include the following:
. . .
–– Public Opinion Polling: The International Republican Institute began implementing a public opinion program in 2005. The program seeks to achieve two results: increasing the availability of objective and reliable polling data; and providing an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls. These results make an important contribution to elections and political processes. First, genuine free and fair elections require that citizens make informed choices. The polling data adds to the objective data available to citizens on key electoral issues. Second, the exit polls provide an independent assessment of the accuracy of the official electoral results, thereby supporting the assessment of the credibility of Kenyan electoral processes. This program also enhances democratic political parties by enhancing the likelihood that candidates base their platforms on the key issues and concerns of their constituents, evidenced in the polling data, rather than the traditional focus on ethnicity and personalized political wrangling.
Yet, after the election, the State Department developed “talking points to deal with press questions if they came” that told a contradictory story, that the exit poll was a “training exercise” rather than an “independent verification of outcomes” and “assessment of credibility of the Kenyan electoral process”:
Q — Why isn’t the Embassy pressuring to release its exit poll conducted in conjunction with the December general elections?
A — As explained on their website, IRI did not conduct the Opinion poll themselves and have real concerns over its validity. Moreover, the poll was conducted as a capacity building or training exercise. We should not Pressure’ firms to bring a product to market that they don’t believe in, whether it is a defective automobile, or a defective opinion poll.
Q — Strategic Public Relations ind Research Limited (SPRR), the firm IRI contracted to Conduct the poll, stands by their results and refutes IRI’s statement. They said they were “shocked and disappointed” at IRI’s decision. What is your reaction to that?
A—This isa highly technical dispute between private parties over raw data that no one else has even seen. We understand that IRI is examining the disputed data to see if any of it is usable, which sound’s reasonable under the circumstances.
Q — In his recent testimony before Congress and in an editorial that he co-wrote, Maina Kiai, Chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, urged Congress to pressure IRI to release the exit poll. In the op-ed, he said it was important to release the exit poll because there are “Suspicions that the institute has suppressed its results not because they were flawed but because they showed that Mr. Odinga won.” These suspicions, he said, have fueled mistrust. What is your position?
A — Again, we should not pressure IRI to release information gathered in a training exercise, especially when they lack confidence in its validity.
The US Government ultimately had rights to our data as a matter of government contracts law and USAID had arguably and ambiguously constrained our ability to release the Exit Poll results to the public in the Amendment to the Cooperative Agreement funding the Exit Poll by providing for “consultation” with the Embassy on “diplomatic or other” considerations. The Cooperative Agreement for the Program was neither classified nor available publicly until I had it released under the Freedom of Information Act years later. The Exit Poll from the 2005 Referendum had been released.
Fortunately we have not seen another disaster quite like Kenya 2007-08, but the questions about transparency and release and reporting of information from election verification and anti-fraud tools are still there. For instance in the most recent elections in the DRC and Malawi, as well as the controversy in Kenya in 2013. This could be addressed by pre-established standards or codes if donors, host governments and democracy assistance organizations or implementers are willing to give up some of their case-by-case flexibility and frankly some of the power of controlling information.
So at this point, Ambassador Godec is a seasoned veteran of Kenya’s post-2007 politics who knows the ground intimately from the last two election cycles. (His prospective “permanent” replacement, Mary Catherine Phee, was nominated in April and got a favorable vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this summer, but a confirmation vote by the full Senate is blocked along with dozens of other nominees.)
I was asked a few months ago to write an article about U.S. support for the BBI process, but I have been unable to do so because it is not clear to me what our policy has been or is now, and I have not found people involved willing to talk to me. Given my role in telling the story of what went wrong in 2007 when I was involved myself it is no surprise that I might not be the one that people in Washington want to open up to now, but even people that I am used to talking to privately have not been as forthcoming as usual. Nonetheless, Kenyans inevitably have questions, and those Americans who care may in the future.
Members of the Kenyan Diaspora Alliance-USA have announced that they have sent Freedom of Information Requests to USAID and some Kenyans on social media and in a few cases in print have asserted suspicions or accusations that the U.S. Government was intending to back “unconstitutional constitutional amendments” in the form of the BBI referendum for some negative purpose. Looking at the degree to which the Obama Administration backed the passage of the new 2010 Constitution as the terminal event of the post-2007 “Reform Agenda”–to the point of having millions of dollars bleed over from neutral democracy assistance programing into supporting the “Yes” campaign in the 2010 referendum during Ambassador Ranneberger’s tenure–I am having a bit of difficulty understanding why my representatives in Washington would be working in general terms to undermine the new Constitution we helped midwife in the first place. At the same time it has openly been our policy under Ambassador Godec originally and then his predecessor Ambassador McCarter to support the Building Bridges Initiative and we did provide some USAID funding for the conducting the consultative process itself. I think it would be in the interests of the United States and of Kenyans for the State Department to get out front of the questions now, with the BBI referendum effort rejected both at trial court level and on appeal, and with the Kenyan presidential race that has been going on since the Handshake entering into its later stages.
We remain Kenya’s largest donor, we have many relationships and support many assistance programs of all sorts in Kenya. Most Kenyans remain in need, and we continue to have the same issues regarding terrorism as during the past 25 years (most especially since the 1998 embassy bombing). In general the geographic neighborhood is experiencing more specific crises and some overall erosion of peace, prosperity and governance. While we may not be as influential in Kenya as we were prior to 2007, and anyone with money can play in Kenyan politics, we will be engaged and we will have influence in 2022. So there is no time like the present to articulate what our policy is for the coming year.
Mama @IdaOdinga and I this morning hosted a farewell breakfast for the outgoing US Ambassador to Kenya @BobGodec who is leaving the country at the end of the month after six years in Nairobi. He promised continued support for the Building Bridges Initiative and war on corruption. pic.twitter.com/PdhXBsMF6j
Three years after the resignations of a majority of Kenya’s election commissioners, President Uhuru Kenyatta has formally taken notice of the four vacancies and gazetted the process through which he will appoint replacements.
Why now? While the President has not explained specifically to my knowledge, his ruling Jubilee Party is seeking to have the Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission conduct a constitutional referendum within weeks to approve amendments derived from the “Building Bridges Initiative”. (A version of a proposal to amend the constitution was passed by most of Kenya’s county assemblies positioned as a citizen initiative. It is now before Parliament where there is internal debate among proponents as to whether to approve it for referendum as is, or to allow amendments to what has already been passed by the counties, which would raise additional legal questions. Challenges to the legality of the process to date are pending in the courts already.)
Remember that U.S. president Joe Biden has “been around”, with far more diplomatic experience than any of his four most recent predecessors in the White House. In 2010 as Vice President he met with Kenyan Speaker Kenneth Marende, along with President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga, ahead of that year’s constitutional referendum during the period in which Kenya was deciding between justice-oriented remedies and impunity for the 2007-08 Post-Election Violence.
Kenyan Speaker of Parliament Kenneth Marende seems to be getting an increased international profile. Navanethem Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Marende on Monday, expressing concern regarding progress on prosecution of suspects for post election violence. According to the Standard she singled out Marende for praise, “saying he had made immense contribution in stabilising the country through some historic rulings and the manner he handled issues in Parliament”.
U.S. Vice President Biden will call on Marende Tuesday as well, along with his meeting with President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga.
Interestingly, Marende says that Parliament “would easily pass” legislation to provide for a “local tribunal” to try election violence cases under Kenyan criminal law “if the ICC acted swiftly by taking away key perpetrators of the violence”.
Biden will leave Thursday morning, the day of the South Mugirango by-election to fill the seat vacated by a successful election petition against Omingo Magara, originally of ODM. As it stands the race is hot, with Raila Odinga campaigning for the substitute ODM nominee, Ibrahim Ochoi, William Ruto campaigning for Magara running as a PDP nominee and heavyweights in PNU affiliates split among Magara and other candidates.
After eleven years I am taking a real hiatus from writing here for early 2021.
First, there is so much going on in Kenyan politics relative to my time to really delve in, uncover and keep current—it is all very much familiar and still “frozen” from 2007-08 in many ways, but I risk being simply wrong if I write without adequate depth this many years since I have actually lived in Kenya.
Second, I am tired of having and expressing opinions after the all the overwrought drama of the Trump years and watching all of the continuing open and notorious corruption in Kenya and East Africa more generally.
Third, I have made a career change. I have left the corporate world and am back in private law/consulting practice and have some potential intersection between development issues I might write about here and things that I am not able to about as a matter of professional obligation.