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.
“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.
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.
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.
At the same time, the egregiousness of the worst of the violence in the Rift Valley may have overshot the mark and undercut possible initial international support for an examination of the election fraud witnessed by diplomats at the ECK and the bribery identified by donor nations before the vote. (See my War for History series for the details of what happened.)
So even with total impunity and immediate and future political gains to be had, burning people alive in the church in Kiambaa in particular, was arguably counterproductive in the short term from a strictly amoral perspective. But that is just my best sense of it and others closer to the situation may disagree.
Now, after the two UhuRuto elections, with the “coalition of the killing” in 2013 and the combined Jubilee Party re-election in 2017, we are faced with another contest where Uhuru and Ruto are on opposite sides, which has only happened once before, in that 2007 fight. In 1992, 1997 (both marked by organized violence) and 2002 they were together just as they have been since early in Kibaki’s second administration until falling out in this race (When did Uhuru and Ruto fight? Why is the “Uhuruto” alliance allegedly so surprising?)
What will they decide on their terms of engagement this year?
I decided to write this post to follow up an exchange on this topic on Twitter triggered by the 14th anniversary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as she campaigned as opposition leader in Pakistan. I struck a nerve with some Kenyans. The point is not to create excuses but rather as I have always done, to try to understand why things happened as they did so that mistakes become learning tools.
The question is one that was always in the back of my mind but no one has ever raised it with me, nor have I heard it discussed. I have known over the years, and it should have been obvious to any acute outside observer, that there were differences of opinion within the State Department as to the proper policy response to Kenya’s 2007 election and it seems that different officials at different levels and times took different approaches.
Remember the chronology:
December 18 – Published interview with Ranneberger says he anticipates “free and fair” election (in spite of knowing that US-funded Results Transmission computers had been shelved by Electoral Commission of Kenya and describing in a December 24 cable “credible reports” of efforts to orchestrate rigging in Odinga’s Langata Constituency which would eliminate him as a presidential candidate, having told me on December 15 that “people were saying” that Raila could be defeated in Langata.).
December 27 – Kenya votes; the International Republican Institute front office team in Kenya for the Election Observation Mission were due to fly on from Kenya to Pakistan to observe the election planned for January 8; we learn the news of the Benazir Bhutto assassination on the way to “open” the polls in Nairobi.
January 3 – Secretary of State Rice, along with Ranneberger, is publicly calling for negotiated power sharing between Kibaki and Odinga. EU joins, following UK, having previously called for remedial action for election fraud (see declassified Rice cable above).
[“Peace deal” is eventually signed on February 28, 2008 which results in limited power sharing with Odinga as Prime Minister and ODM getting some cabinet portfolios and support by Kibaki and Odinga for new constitution that establishes county governments and devolves some powers, while eliminating Prime Minister position; impunity for election fraud and post election violence enshrined on de facto basis. Exit poll funded by USAID as “vote verification” tool showing Odinga win is released by UCSD in July and by IRI in August.]
Given the context of potential turmoil in nuclear armed Pakistan, bordering the escalating war in Afghanistan, during the Iraq “surge”, it could be imagined that those with responsibility for the whole of CENTCOM’s Area of Operations which included Kenya at the time, or even the entire globe in the case of the State Department, might have been initially more reliant on the Ambassador and the Africa Bureau and a little slower to realize that the election had in fact fallen to fraud such that we were “forced to question” the ECK’s “results” [which never were even published].
Dorina Bekoe and Stephanie Burchard of the U.S. Institute for Defense Analyses have published in African Affairs an interesting write up of their study of secret mediation processes as an additional tool, along with more conventional election support measures, to seek to prevent election violence in Ghana in the 2016 election.
Well worth your time with lots to think about regarding the interplay of violence prevention, election and other democracy assistance and the other diplomatic and outside involvement with election contests.
The study finds formal secret mediation between the competing camps to have been an important part of a robust and relatively successful violence prevention program.
Daniel Arap Moi, the authoritarian strongman who had ruled for a quarter of a century, was gone, his hand-picked successor roundly defeated.
A nation rejoiced. Already one of Africa’s most stable countries, Kenya could also now claim to be among its most democratic.
Last night, Mr Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in before a few hundred loyalists at a tawdry ceremony held in the gardens of the official presidential residence.
The contrast could not have been more stark.
As he lumbered towards the podium, Kenya’s cities and towns were erupting in chaos and ethnically motivated bloodshed, a predictable response after the most dubious election since the one-party era ended in 1992.
It is no exaggeration to say that Kenya is potentially facing its most serious crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1963.
The prospect for serious violence between the country’s two most traditionally antagonistic tribes, Mr Kibaki’s Kikuyu and the Luo, led by his challenger Raila Odinga, is worryingly high.
Luos, marginalised since independence, have reason to feel aggrieved. Thanks to an alliance that Mr Odinga built with other tribes, they felt that this was their best and possibly last chance of taking power.
The farcical nature of the vote will only heighten their disappointment. The electoral commission initially claimed that roughly a quarter of returning officers disappeared for 36 hours without announcing results and had switched off their mobile phones.
When results did finally emerge, Mr Odinga saw a one million vote lead overturned.
Opinion polls showed that the contest was always going to be close, but if the official results are correct, Kenyans voted in an inexplicably bizarre manner.
After turfing out 20 of Mr Kibaki’s cabinet ministers and reducing his party to a rump in the simultaneous parliamentary poll, they apparently voted in an entirely different manner in the presidential race.
Apart from an unusually high turn-out in some of Mr Kibaki’s strongholds (sometimes more than 100 per cent ), the president then appeared to have won many more votes in some constituencies than first reported.
If it all seems depressingly familiar, it need not have been.
Mr Kibaki had lost a lot of the enormous goodwill that he enjoyed following the 2002 election after a cabal of Kikuyu cronies was accused of corruption. He also reneged on a promise to introduce a new constitution that would have returned many of his overarching powers to parliament.
On the other hand, he allowed a free press to thrive and respected the results of a 2005 referendum that went against him. Many expected he would do the same if he lost last Thursday’s election.
Instead of setting an example to the rest of the continent, Mr Kibaki’s opponents say that he has joined the unholy pantheon of African presidents who have refused to surrender power.
If he has chosen instead to squander his country’s stability and its fragile ethnic harmony it is a tragedy not just for Kenya but for all of Africa.
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.
President Biden and President Kenyatta had an apparently cozy visit at the White House. Biden got to host an African head of state after neglecting to do so around the UN General Assembly. Kenyatta got to “bring home” news of a U.S. vaccine donation, personal praise from Biden and a mutual reiteration about how well the Governments of our two countries do on cooperating on terrorism, business and generally on being “partners”. See the account from Kenya’s state media, KBC.
I do not think it unfair to read the tea leaves from this action by the Biden Administration–on the heels of announcing the appointment of Judd Devermont, late of the Center for Strategic and Studies, to formulate a new Africa policy (as John Bolton in the Trump Administration)–toward deciphering how the U.S. executive branch can be expected to play Kenya’s current election.
Of course, the “heck of a job” line in the United States in recent years is usually intended to be sarcastic. The background is remembered with poignancy by those of us who had personal experience with Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. As explained in Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary:
A “heck of a job” is a complete and total screw-up. It’s used, ironically, to show when one’s view of a situation is in contradiction to easily-observed facts.
The phrase comes from President George W. Bush who visited Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and told FEMA chief Michael D. Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Brown later admitted he winced when Bush told him that: “I knew the minute he said that, the media and everybody else would see a disconnect between what he was saying and what I was witnessing on the ground. That’s the president’s style. His attitude and demeanor is always one of being a cheerleader and trying to encourage people to keep moving. It was just the wrong time and the wrong place.”
Brown resigned ten days after he was praised.
President George W. Bush tells FEMA Administrator Michael Brown he’s doing “a heck of a job.” (Photo: AP)
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