Friday, December 17, 2010

The ICC and Kenya's 2007 election, Part I

A lot of people have been asking about the ICC indictments announced yesterday for 6 Kenyan politicians and opinion leaders. What is going on is actually a really important moment for the testing of the international court, the concept of international intervention on issues of genocide and crimes against humanity, and more importantly, accountability in Kenya for years of planned violence around elections.

Since many of you have most likely not been following this story I’ll try to provide a little background and context. Since this could get a little long, I’m breaking it into two posts. The first post here is a very basic primer on the history of elections in Kenya, including the 2007 election. I promise it’s not as boring as it sounds…

Kenya suffered through a pretty brutal dictatorial regime under Daniel Arap Moi from 1978-2002. He had banned parties, divided up the wealth of the country for his supporters and routinely locked up and roughed up those who did not agree with him. Most if not all of the politicians in power today come from his era, at various times fighting against him and other times working with him (The current Prime Minister and his father were accused of leading a coup against Moi and were kicked out of the country in the 1980s).

In 1992, pressure from the international community and from within his own country led Moi to reintroduce a multi-party system, but he clutched on to power for another decade. The ensuing elections were characterized by pretty severe violence in contested areas, all organized and funded by political and business leaders (particularly in 1997). (A quick side note-none of these crimes have ever been addressed in a court or reconciliation process). Finally, in 2002, he agreed to step down and de-politicize the electoral commission responsible for ensuring the fairness of the election. And, unsurprisingly his guy (Uhuru Kenyatta) lost. This ushered in a new era of hope and progress in Kenya. The people saw the power of their vote and believed in their ability to make change in their own country. They were able to speak openly on the street for the first time, criticize the government and not fear they would be locked up or beaten up for doing so.

In 2005, a referendum on a new constitution only further strengthened the perception of a new and forward moving Kenya. The population voted down the constitution for fear it over empowered the executive branch and did little to ensure better access to government at local levels. Out of the referendum campaigns grew the presidential campaigns for the 2007 elections. President Kibaki, who had pushed for the constitution, headed the ‘yes’ team, symbolized by a banana on the ballot (most African countries’ ballots contain symbols next to party and candidate names since at least in the past a sizeable percentage of the population couldn’t read). Then government minister, Raila Odinga (now Prime Minister) headed the ‘no’ team, symbolized by an orange. He then formed the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) building on his success in the referendum. I’ll leave out a whole mess of very complicated political backstory on the relationship between the two of them and their various supporters, but suffice it to say it’s nasty and confusing.

This brings us to 2007. With all of the success and excitement of the past 5 years, the Kenyan public and international community expected another watershed election. Assuming that all would go well, people had already moved ahead to excitedly noting that Kenya would only be the third country in Africa to undergo 2 peaceful transitions of power (believe it or not, Somalia was first). Busy making plans for the creative governance initiatives that could come and example about to be set for the region, people failed to pay close enough attention to what was really happening in the electoral preparation. A few months prior to the election, the president had let the terms of the election commissioners lapse. Barely a month before the election he dismissed several commissioners, and replaced them with a slew of new people with no experience in election management and administration. Though concerned by the move, most people noted that the well-regarded election commission chairman had remained in his role and could handle the lot of under-trained and most likely politically motivated appointees. Unfortunately, as we would later find out, Sam Kivuitu was quite ill.

As the election approached there was a palpable excitement and pride. Campaign rallies were held across Kenya. ODM, perhaps the most animated, painted their headquarters-a big house in the middle of the city-bright orange, and decked out their supporters with orange cowboy hats and sunglasses with lenses spelling out Ralia’s name. Everyone knew the election would be close and expected a long wait for a final count. When the day came, voting went off without much of a hitch. There were a few reports of extra busloads of ballots and the usual minor attempts at electoral fraud. But there were many more stories about long patient voting lines, high turnout and few issues.

Where the trouble began was at the counting stage. Elections in much of Africa are run a bit differently than in the west. Because there is such a history of electoral malpractice, every party and often-independent observers deploy people to watch events at the poll. They are in the polling station from opening to closing, and then remain to watch the counting. There are countless images of electoral officials crowded around a table, counting large piles of ballots by candlelight. In the best election situations, election administrators must take a ballot, hold it up, declare its vote, and place it in the requisite pile. Everyone counts together, making it much easier to identify fraud at the next stages of counting. After ballots are counted at the polling location, a special form is filled out, and the form and ballots are sent to a regional tally center. The votes from polling locations are combined and tallied at the regional level and then sent on to the national headquarters for final checks and tallying.

Where things went wrong was in the transit. Unfortunately, no independent monitoring group deployed observers to count at polling locations so there was no independent count to verify the totals at local levels. Something happened to many of the verification forms en route to the regional tally centers and the counting slowed significantly. Though reports had been streaming in during the first day, on the 2nd day it abruptly stopped. Suspicious of tampering (many of the votes yet to be counted were from areas favorable to the president), crowds of people rushed to the national tallying center. Completely overwhelmed by the aggressive crowd, the Electoral Chairman shut down a public meeting reporting on the counting process. Information stopped dead in its tracks. No television cameras or reporters were allowed in the center and there was complete silence from the commission on the status of the vote. Finally, 3 days after the election, Sam Kivuitu appeared suddenly at a press conference, announced President Kibaki the winner, and disappeared back into the headquarters. It was announced that a mere half a day later, the President would be sworn in for his second term on the lawn of State House. Now just a reminder here that in the US, while the president is elected in November, he does not take office until February. This is intentionally designed to leave time for any challenges to the vote to be fully addressed. Now consider what happened in Kenya. The sudden and immediate swearing of the President opened a flood of anger and suspicion across the country.

I often recall a newspaper picture from this day. President Kibaki is standing on the lawn of his official residence, being sworn in for a second term by a white wigged judge (a bizarre hold-over from British colonial times), while smoke begins to rise from riots in the background. Kenya was literally burning. Mass pandemonium had instantly erupted. ODM supporters, claiming that the election was stolen took to the streets in anger. Many of the ODM supporters were among the poorer residents of Kenya, attracted to Odinga’s more populist message. They saw this as yet another instance of the elite ensuring they had no access to power or basic resources and rights. The most well-known and largest slum in Nairobi broke into horrible violence. Houses were burned, angry young men took to the streets and key parts of Kenya went into bunker-mode. At this point, all media across the country was shut down.

In the midst of this chaos, some ODM leaders took advantage of the anger to organize horribly violent retaliatory attacks against PNU supporters. These are those awful images you most likely saw in the New York Times of churches full with frightened people burnt to the ground, and others where people identified as Kikuyu, were pulled from cars and hacked to death. The violence took a dark turn. I should note here, that while up to this point the electoral violence had very little to do with ethnic identity and very much to do with class identity, this changed very quickly.

Politicians and leaders looking to capitalize on the chaos began manipulating long-standing tribal differences into political fights. While it is true that the majority of PNU supporters came from the central province, composed mostly of Kikuyus, and the majority of ODM supporters came from the Rift Valley, composed mostly of Luo (and in this case, allied Kalenjins), the turning of tribe on tribe was very much orchestrated.

In the next post I will dive into this post-election violence, the organized element, and how the conflict was brought to an end. Read on…

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