Updated: Burgeoning South Sudan crisis will increase Kenya’s leverage over donors, NGOs, international media

The news from South Sudan seems quite serious and disturbing. This is an area of special responsibility for the United States, and needless to say, I hope we are able to help.

Nairobi’s role for many years as the “back office” for international assistance to South Sudan has always given the Government of Kenya extra leverage through control of visas and work permits. My twitter feed indicates that the U.S. is recommending that Americans evacuate South Sudan as the current crisis swells with reports indicating 400-500 people may have been killed.

This brings to bear what I have called “the Nairobi curse” for Kenyans seeking political space, democracy and civil liberties of their own and hope for support from the international community. The thing you always hear, but never read, from internationals working in Kenya is “what if I can’t renew my work permit” because of some offense taken by someone in the Kenyan government.

Back in 2007-08 when I was East Africa director for IRI in Nairobi, we shared space with our separate Sudan program, which was much, much bigger than our Kenya program (and was IRI’s second largest program worldwide I was told, after Iraq). Under my East Africa office, our Somaliland program also got more funding than Kenya. Obviously there would have been repercussions from soured relations with the Kenyan administration. The same situation would pertain for NDI or other international organizations with large permanent regional operations based in Nairobi.

In my case, I arrived in Nairobi on the job in June 2007 expecting my work permit to come through within perhaps a few weeks of ordinary bureaucracy. With no explanation, it was not forthcoming until February 2008 during the late stages of the post election violence period. Thus, I did not have my permit issued yet when I was dealing with our controversial election observation and the issues about whether or not to release the exit poll that showed the opposition ODM winning the presidential race rather than the ECK’s official choice of Kibaki.
At some point that month I was summoned to an Immigration office at Nyayo House (where political prisoners where tortured in the basement during the Moi era) for no readily apparent reason and received the permit shortly thereafter. Of course Nairobi was a much more easy going place before the 2007 election than it is now. Nothing was ever said to connect any of this delay to anything to do with politics or the election and it may have been strictly a coincidence.

Fortunately for me, I was on leave from my job as a lawyer back in the United States, so being denied a permit and thus losing my job in Kenya and having to move my family back precipitously would not have been consequential for me in the way that it would have been for the typical young NGO worker. Everyone has their own story I am sure.

Earlier this year the Kenyan government announced, for instance, that it would start enforcing work permit rules for academic researchers on short assignments. Lots of room to maneuver for creatively repressive politicians.

By the way, Uhuru did end up signing that Media Bill.

Update: See the editorial in today’s Star: Work Permit Crackdown Is Counter-Productive. And the news story, “Rules on Work Permits Tighten“.

More links for Kenya’s Election; Chief Justice’s “bombshell” press conference; Debate loses a “horse”

Kenya Voting: "Curriculum Cooking"

AllAfrica.com has put together a special feature page on the Kenyan elections that is a good source for the latest stories from the main Kenyan media sources:  “Kenya Decides: 2013 Elections”. (h/t @GeorgetownDG)

On Thursday, February 28, the Institute for Security Studies Nairobi office will host a “Seminar on Kenya’s 2013 Elections: issues, actors and scenarios.”  Register on-line through the link.

IRIN has published on on-line “multimedia documentary” entitled “No Ordinary Elections” which does a nice job of informing an international audience of the basic context of the upcoming Kenyan election and includes good interviews discussing humanitarian concerns and preparations in general terms.  A work of art in internet publishing.

In the latest developments, there is a lot of buzz in the human rights community regarding the announcement by Chief Justice Mutunga at a press conference today that he had received a letter threatening judges and others regarding any ruling against the candidacy of Uhuru Kenyatta purporting to be from a Mungiki-associated group, Further, as reported in the Star story “Chief Justice Raises Concern Over Threats to Judges”:

The CJ also revealed that he was asked by an immigration officer at the JKIA to seek travel clearance from the Head of Civil Service Francis Kimemia a day after the letter was posted.

“I was stopped at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) by an Immigration Officer, who insisted that I could not travel because I had not been cleared by Mr. Francis Kimemia, the Permanent Secretary, Head of the Public Service, and Secretary to the Cabinet.” Mutunga said.

The CJ further asked Inspector General of police David Kimaiyo to take the necessary steps to protect judges from threats and intimidation so as not to give constitutional rulings. “The Judiciary will not flinch from interpreting the constitution as required. The constitution must be guarded jealously,” He said.

From The Standard: CJ Mutunga bombshell”.

From the Daily Nation: “Chief Justice Speaks Out on Threatening Letter.”

Obviously a lot of difference among the media houses in how to report this.  Thus the need to read widely to put together the pieces in getting the facts and understand the interests.

While I would completely reserve judgement as to exactly what to make of the threatening letter, the “immigration” harassment is disturbing in light of Kenya’s short but unduly “colorful” history involving politics at these highest levels.  Certainly the President himself should address this if he wants to reassure the country at a time in which no one needs any more tension than can be helped.

This has overshadowed the other big political story of the day, that Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaign has announced that he will drop out of the second presidential debate scheduled for Monday, complaining of the allegedly unfair amount of emphasis on the charges he faces from the International Criminal Court and “ganging up” by the other candidates on this point.

My sense of the political strategy here would be that Kenyatta feels he is in solid position to make a runoff, and not in striking distance to win in the first round, so there is nothing major to be gained from another debate, while there are risks from undesired questions and unscripted situations.  He has plenty of money and media access as a top candidate so he probably doesn’t feel a need to share the stage to  communicate whatever he wants to say in the last days of the campaign.  Likewise, part of his approach since the ICC charges have been confirmed has been to portray himself as a victim of other politicians and interests, so claiming that he was treated unfairly in the debate fits with that theme, too.