The “War for History” part fifteen:  Why the conventional wisdom that Kenya was “on the brink of civil war” in 2008 is wrong

I must have read, or at least skimmed, dozens of Kenya articles, papers or policy briefs that include, usually near the beginning, reference to the alleged circumstance of Kenya being “on the brink of civil war” at the time of February 2008 post election “peace deal” brokered by Kofi Annan between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.  Invariably, this important assertion is without any type of citation or elaboration.  It has become self-referential conventional wisdom.

In the case of political science papers on narrower topics–those along the lines of “What can ‘big data’ tell us about gender disparity in boda-boda fares in rural Kisii eighteen months after Kenya’s Post Election Violence?”–the “brink of civil war” reference is boilerplate contextual introduction.  More significantly the “brink of civil war” phrase is standard in writings on issues of foreign policy, conflict avoidance and resolution, electoral violence specifically and the development of democracy more generally.  In these writings, the validity of this relatively untested characterization matters a great deal.

I don’t say this to be critical–the “brink of civil war” line is found in the writings of personal friends and people for whom I have the utmost regard.  Which in a way makes it all the more important to raise my concern that the terminology may unintentionally mislead those who don’t have personal knowledge of the ins-and-outs of what was happening in Kenya from December 27, 2007 to February 28, 2008 and may skew historical understanding.

There were several types of violence in various locations in the country triggered from the election failure.  My contention is that none of them were close precursors to any likely civil war.

To put it directly, the incumbent administration seized the opportunity to stay in power through the up-marking of vote tallies at the Electoral Commission of Kenya and the immediate delivery of the contested certificate of election to State House for the quick secretly pre-arranged swearing in of Kibaki for his second term before his gathered supporters there.  The incumbent President and Commander in Chief remained in effectively complete control of all of the instruments of state security–the Police Service and Administrative Police and General Service Unit paramilitary forces, along with the military forces and intelligence service–all of which were part of the unitary national executive.

Notably, the Administrative Police had been deployed pre-election to western areas of Kenya in aid of the President’s re-election effort as we in the International Republican Institute election observation were told in a briefing from the U.S. Embassy on December 24th and many Kenyans had seen on television news broadcasts.  While this initially led to disturbing incidences of pre-election violence against individual AP officers, by election day the vote proceeded peacefully with voters cooperating with deployed state police at the polls.

A civil war scenario would thus have involved an insurrection against the State.  I really do not think this was ever likely, most importantly because none of the major opposition leaders wanted it, nor a critical mass of the public without any pre-defined leadership.

While Kibaki’s official “victory” by roughly 200,000 votes rested on a reported 1.2m vote margin in Central Province, significant strongholds of the opposition were in parts of Nairobi and in the west overall, starting in the western/northern parts of the Rift Valley and including Western and Nyanza Provinces.  The violence on the Coast was not broad and extreme and eastern Kenya was not destabilized in the way that it has been in recent times.  The key ‘slum’ areas in Nairobi were fairly effectively sealed in on the eve of the vote as government security forces deployed in Nairobi.  Violence in the slums was no threat to overthrow the government and never broadened to seriously threaten areas where the political class (of whichever party affiliation that year) lived.

Solo 7--Kibera
Solo 7–Kibera

Palpable fear of a mass scale conflict between opposition civilians and state security in Nairobi largely ended when Raila cancelled the planned ODM rally for January 3, 2008 as the GSU continued to surround Uhuru Park shoulder to shoulder.  As best I could tell the EU at that point came around to support the U.S. position in favor of negotiated “power sharing” in lieu of a new election and/or recount or other remediation.  Acts of terrible violence continued to ebb and flow in specific places but Kibaki’s hold on power was not threatened as far as I can see. (more…)

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The War for History, part fourteen: dare we learn from 2007-08 in Kenya or is it still too soon to reckon with the whole story?

Kenya's security situation continues to deteriorate as Kenya's political leaders move on to focus to the next elections.  Challenges abound on succession and election issues in Burundi, Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda, along with the crises in governance in the…

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“The War for History” part twelve: Why did Rannenberger and Lambsdorf react so differently to the election fraud they witnessed together?

Election Observation as "Diplomacy or Assistance" in practice We learned four years after the 2007 Kenyan election from my 2009 Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department that U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger had witnessed in person the inflation…

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“The War for History” part eleven–what did I mean in Part Ten in referring to Ranneberger “trying to quash” poll results showing Odinga taking the lead in the presidential race in September 2007?

In response to a reader inquiry, I want to make a clarification of an incident in September 2007 I referred to as background in Part Ten of this War for History series and addressed in more detail in an e-mail…

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“The War for History” part ten: What was going on in the State Department on Kenya’s failed election, recognizing change at IRI–and how the 2007 exit poll controversy turned into a boon for IRI in Kenya

The International Republican Institute’s New Leader and Kenya

The new president of the International Republican Institute (“IRI”) since January 2014, Mark Green, visited Kenya this past summer with a personal background in East Africa.  He and his wife taught for a year in western Kenya in the 1980s and he came back to observe the election in 2002 as a Member of Congress from Wisconsin (he was elected in 1998).  After unsuccessfully running for governor in 2006 he led the Washington office of Malaria No More and was appointed Ambassador to Tanzania by President Bush in August 2007.

Ironically, Green was appointed Ambassador in the wake of a controversy in which his predecessor, a political appointee who had been Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, was accused of interference with the intended independence of the Peace Corp operation in Tanzania.  The Peace Corp headquarters defended their Country Director who was expelled from Tanzania by Green’s predecessor.  The expulsion was enough of an issue that first Senator Dodd and then Senator Kerry put a “hold” on Green’s confirmation as replacement until the State Department issued an apology and Green gave assurances that his approach would be substantially different.  Ambassador Green had significant support in moving through the controversy from Senator Feingold, the Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee–also from Wisconsin–who emphasized Green’s background with the region.

It was just a few months later that Senator Feingold, on February 7, 2008 grilled Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and Assistant USAID Administrator Kathleen Almquist on why the USAID-funded exit poll conducted through IRI on the Kenyan election on December 27 had not been released.  It was that evening that IRI released their statement that the poll was “invalid” which they did not reverse until six months later, the day before testimony about the exit poll in Nairobi before the Kreigler Commission.  [To be precise, IRI did not retract their statement that the poll was “invalid”; they rather issued a new statement releasing the poll and thus in fact superseding their previous characterization.]

Diplomats on the ground: East Africa during the Kenyan crisis 2007-08

As Ambassador in Tanzania from 2007-09, Green hosted President Bush on the President’s February 2008 Africa visit.  Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rice flew to Nairobi to meet with the ODM and PNU leaders on February 18 and push for a power sharing deal that made space for the opposition in the second Kibaki Administration that had been inaugurated by Kibaki’s twilight swearing in on December 30.

Before Rice visited, the State Department had issued congratulations to Kibaki, then backed off, while Ambassador Ranneberger was initially encouraging Kenyans to accept the election results as announced by the ECK. Kibaki had appointed his core team of fifteen top ministers, including the new Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Uhuru Kenyatta in the Local Government portfolio with jurisdiction over Nairobi, on January 8, four days after Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer arrived to lead the State Department team in person in Nairobi.  Frazer joined other Western diplomats in objecting to the new appointments but, as with Kibaki’s swearing in, the new appointments became fait accompli.  See “Fury as Kenyan leader names ministers”.  By his arrival in Africa on February 17, President Bush himself, however, was warning of consequences to a continuing failure to negotiate power sharing:

“We’ve been plenty active on these issues, and we’ll continue to be active on these issues because they’re important issues for the U.S. security and for our interests,” Bush said after landing in the tiny coastal country of Benin. He noted he will send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Kenya on Monday. “The key is that the leaders hear from her firsthand the U.S. desires to see that there be no violence and that there be a power-sharing agreement that will help this nation resolve its difficulties.”

A senior administration official later told reporters that the administration wants to use the Rice visit to pressure Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to compromise with his opposition. The official expressed frustration that Kibaki seems to assume unqualified U.S. support and said that Rice will tell him, “If you can’t make a deal, you’re not going to have good relations with and support of the United States.” The official added, “We’re not going to support a Kenya government that’s going on as business as usual.”  [emphasis added]

“Bush, in Africa, issues warning to Kenya”, Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2008.

As Ambassador in Tanzania, Green received the cables from Ambassador Ranneberger in Kenya that I have discussed in my FOIA Series on this blog, including Ranneberger’s pre-election description of the planned exit poll: “The Mission is funding national public opinion polling to increase the availability of objective and reliable data and to provide an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls.  The implementing partner is IRI.” [emphasis added].  Likewise Ambassador Ranneberger’s January 2 cable describing personally witnessing the altered vote tallies received at the ECK headquarters prior to the announcement of Kibaki as winner on December 30.  See Part Ten–FOIA Documents From Kenya’s 2007 Election–Ranneberger at ECK: “[M]uch can happen between the casting of votes and the tabulation of ballots, and it did”.

I was in Somaliland for IRI the day Secretary Rice spent in Nairobi.  She also met that day with some other Kenyans at the embassy residence and a cable over her name regarding “Secretary Rice’s February 18, 2008 visit with Kenyan business and civil society leaders” was sent on February 21 from “USDEL SECRETARY KENYA” to Washington “IMMEDIATE” and to “AMEMBASSY DAR ES SALAAM PRIORITY” along with other interested posts.  Under a section of the cable labeled “Worries about Hardliners, Militias, and Accountability”  are three paragraphs: (more…)

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“The War for History” part eight: “The way not forward; lessons not learned” from Kenya’s failed 2007 election assistance

Here is the contract language requiring a Final Report from the Cooperative Agreement for the USAID - IRI Kenya polling program starting with the 2005 Referendum Exit Poll and culminating with the 2007 General Election Exit Poll: I finally learned…

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“The War for History” part six: USAID ended up saying exit poll “disclosed that the wrong candidate was declared the winner” in 2007 Kenya election

From USAID's Frontlines magazine for August 2008: Kenya’s President Lost Disputed Election, Poll Shows NAIROBI, Kenya—An exit poll carried out with a grant from USAID in Kenya after elections six months ago that unleashed a wave of political and ethic…

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Part Three of “The War for History”: Continuing my email reports to Joel Barkan

Continuing with my Jan. 2-3, 2008 e-mails reporting back to Joel Barkan in Washington from Nairobi:

When I reported the call [to me from Ranneberger] to Washington, Lorne eventually and reluctantly made the decision to scratch Bellamy (he was not told the truth to my chagrin).  Lorne then called Asst. Sec. Frazer on his way to the airport to tell her to get her Ambassador in line, then when he landed in Thailand he called the Ambassador to tell him to stop interfering in our EO.

After the Ambassador first raised his objection to Bellamy a few days earlier we had research Bellamy’s record and found no problems and checked out the political perception in Kenya and also found no problems.  Likewise, we had confirmed with the State Dept in Washington and confirmed that they had no issues with Bellamy being a delegate.  Likewise, we had confirmed that USAID was not objecting (and that they acknowledged they had no right to).

In the meantime, I had gotten a call from the Embassy that next Friday afternoon to come to Ambassador’s residence to see him on Saturday afternoon.  When I visit him, he in a fashion apologized for getting spun up with me, but reiterated that it was vital to the credibility of our whole delegation that Bellamy be struck because he was absolutely “perceived as anti-govenment”.  Whether he intended to or not, he left me with the distinct impression that the “perception” had been conveyed straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (one of the provisions in our international agreement covering EOM standards prohibits allowing a government or other party any ability to veto members of our delegations).

Further, the Ambassador told me that “people” were saying that Raila might lose Langata.  He said that he would be personally observing the voting in Langata and wanted to take Connie with him for part of the day.  He also said that he wanted to take Connie privately to meet with Stanley Murage before the election.

When I reported this to DC, needless to say alarm bells went off.  We nixed letting Connie go off observing separately with the Ambassador and insisted that Connie would not be available for any off-schedule private meetings.  Serious consideration was given to cancelling the EO and I think it would have been cancelled if I didn’t say that I thought that I could manage the situation here.

When I told Sheryl about the Murage gambit she audibly gasped on the other end of the phone but didn’t comment.  She

(more…)

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