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.)
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?
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.
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.
[As the year winds down and things crank up in Kenya’s 2022 presidential campaign and BBI referendum I am going through some of my old unpublished drafts – this is an idea that could matter that the parties involved do not have an incentive to bring forward.]
To me, the answer to the headline question is clearly “yes”.
Very specifically to my experience as in Kenya in 2007 as International Republican Institute Resident East Africa Director, I was able to explain to the USAID Kenya Mission that we at IRI were bound as a party to a published International Code of Conduct in conducting an International Election Observation that required us to maintain independence from the Ambassador.
(Readers may recall that then-Ambassador Ranneberger had pushed for a USAID-funded IRI Election Observation Mission for Kenya’s 2007 election which USAID had decided not to conduct in their ordinary planning process for the election and that IRI did not seek to undertake.)
We on the IRI staff were able to push back on Ambassador Ranneberger’s desire to select Election Observation Mission delegates, although we ended up informally going along with Ranneberger’s choice of Connie Newman and Chester Crocker as lead delegates (Crocker was not available to travel on the dates required).
The rest of the delegates were our choices rather than the Ambassador’s and we resisted Ranneberger’s expressed desire to remove his predecessor Amb. Mark Bellamy from the Observation until Ranneberger “laid down a marker” as he put it.
Likewise, we invited against Ranneberger’s wishes Bellamy’s predecessor as Ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, who was then the Africa lead at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and later Assistant Secretary of State under Obama (Carson was not cleared to participate–I was privately relieved for two reasons: it got me off the hook on a potential conflict with Ranneberger and while Carson seemed like a real asset for the Observation I thought the optics of having a high ranking Executive Branch employee and particularly one directly in an Intelligence Community job would not be great from an independence standpoint. In hindsight it might have done some real good to have him there.).
Unfortunately, on the now perhaps infamous Exit Poll, I was more or less naked in dealing with USAID and the Ambassador. The polling program was under a separate Cooperative Agreement between the CEPPS (IRI, NDI and IFES) and USAID which had started with the Exit Poll for the 2005 Constitutional Referendum. (The defeat of the proposed “Wako Draft” Constitution gave rise to the Orange Democratic Party which led Kenya’s opposition in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections, culminating in the March 2018 “handshake” and the present “Building Bridges Initiative” referendum campaign).
The 2005-07 polling program was scheduled to end with a public opinion survey in September 2007, well ahead of the general election, the date of which was not set until weeks later. USAID amended the Agreement to add the general election Exit Poll at the end. It was only after I initially reported a few days before the election that we were going to have to cancel the Exit Poll due to the objection of Electoral Commission of Kenya Chairman Samuel Kivuitu that I was told by USAID that the Exit Poll as a higher priority for the Ambassador than the Election Observation itself. Kivuitu’s acquiescence was achieved.
On the late afternoon of Election Day as I was dragging my feet on releasing preliminary numbers before the polls closed I was told that “the whole reason” for doing the Exit Poll was for “early intelligence” for the Ambassador and USAID went to our subcontracted polling firm to get the figures. [Remember that I covered all this in complaints to the Inspectors General at USAID and State.]
IRI had no established backstop to protect itself from interference on the Exit Poll because unlike on the Election Observation Mission there was no published Code or Agreement that I could use to push back to preserve our independence.
We had agreed internally at IRI that we should not report any Exit Poll numbers externally including to USAID or the Embassy until the polls closed, and it was quite clear that we had no contractual obligation to make a report during the vote. But given that USAID was willing to go underneath us to the pollster it was out of our hands literally and there were no clear standards beyond that.
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.
Now that it is clear that Kenyatta and Odinga will be leading Jubilee and ODM to sponsor constitutional referendum ahead of #Kenya2022 what can be done to triage the outstanding problems w/ Election Commission as seen 2007-17?