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.
To me, Daniel arap Moi in person seemed more like Raila (and I am guessing Uhuru, whom I never met). A more relaxed demeanor reflecting longevity in the game presumably. At that time, in July 2007, Moi seemed to be trying to stay relevant politically. (Shortly after I met him the deal was cut whereby Moi and KANU, led nominally by Uhuru, crossed over from leading “the official opposition” to supporting Kibaki’s re-election and Moi was appointed by Kibaki as Envoy to Sudan).
Ruto was conspicuously more telegenic and articulate. Thus his natural role in squaring off against Kibaki’s Justice Minister Martha Karua at the Electoral Commission (ECK) Headquarters on television at the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) during the tally in the days following December 27, 2007 election (until the Kibaki Government through Interior Minister John Michuki shut off the live broadcasting). Even though Ruto wasn’t a lawyer.
The surprising thing to me when I introduced myself briefly to Ruto was how different he came across in person than on television. A person of much more intense physical presence than a typical politician like Moi or Raila, Kalonzo, Mudavadi or others I met.
This impression lends itself to a question: is Ruto a typical Kenyan politician, or is he a telegenic but more especially dangerous person who has simply been normalized by pundits and diplomats because he acquired power by virtue of a “coalition of accused kingpins of violence” with Uhuru Kenyatta during the failed ICC prosecutions for the 2007-08 Post Election Violence (PEV)?
Or was Ruto simply normal in his relation to political violence and wrongly tagged as more responsible than other Kalenjin politicians, such that the opportunistic political gain from being indicted by the ICC is just one more common facet of democratic competition. So that in the environment of total agreed impunity of the political class for the murder and mayhem of 2007-08 Ruto has simply the normal association with violence so that his qualities of telegenic articulation can be credited positively rather than treated with suspicion?
Or is it, to the contrary, plausible to see him as something something else entirely, a fresh candidate now, breaking the mold of Kenyan politics not by virtue of having been an especially dangerous protagonist of ethnic violence, but by becoming the first real reformist to win by moving Kenya beyond ethnicity on a platform of better economic policy? Or a fresh candidate breaking breaking the mold in some other way?
Some of this depends on whether one sees continuity between the actions and history of politicians from one campaign cycle to the next, or whether it is tacitly agreed that democracy means every candidate should get a clean slate to be whatever they want to be in each particular campaign.
(Note that none of these questions are intended to comment in any detail about other comparisons between Ruto and his rivals or examine the track record of those rivals, each of whom have their own controversies even if they are easier to group together more generally.)
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.
How many IGAD members are democracies? Well, Kenya has some genuine if flawed level of democracy, but Uganda has a president who took power by military force more than 35 years ago and the rest of the bunch are less advanced. IGAD has its value, but the idea of standing up for freedom and fairness at the polls would seem highly counterintuitive for IGAD diplomats.
. . . mandate is to promote good governance, democracy, human rights and rule of law in the region.”
“IGADEOM is composed of seven core staff and 24 short-term observers. The short-term observers include representatives of electoral bodies and other public institutions as well as diplomats drawn from six Igad member states of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda.”
Are diplomats and public officials who are not committed to democracy in their own countries likely to prioritize free and fair elections for Kenyan voters?
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.
“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].