When does universal improvement get in the way of the national interest?
The news from Kenya is that a man named Uhuru Kenyatta won the east African country’s presidential election by a close margin over his rival, Raila Odinga, and the latter, dissatisfied, is taking a challenge to the Supreme Court, in this instance the relevant jurisdiction.
The last time Kenya’s presidential election was disputed, riots sparked months of violence in which over a thousand people died. Security services from rival parties, which tend to represent tribal interests, got involved in ways that have not been satisfactorily explained, and Mr. Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges that he incited his men to commit mass murder. He denies the charges and has stated that he will appear in court at The Hague and clear his name, even as his lawyers argue the whole case is moot due to the withdrawal of a key witness.
Mr. Odinga, the unsuccessful candidate in 2007 against then-incumbent Mwai Kibaki, has appealed to his supporters for calm and has demanded the Supreme Court verdict, expected within the fortnight, be respected.
You could argue that we been there done that, and it is certainly true we have had close presidential elections and in a recent one our Supreme Court got involved too. Perhaps better informed of things American than we are of things Kenyan, Mr. Odinga has on his legal team William Burck, Esq., who was on the winning side in Bush v. Gore, which has gone down in the annals of our Great Republic as “The Case of the Lost Chads.”
You could argue also that we been there done that because just as in the earliest days of the United States, Kenya has experimented lately with rivals simultaneously in power, then running against each other, falling out — perchance they will finally become friends, bringing their families’ histories, and their nation’s history, full cycle.
The Kenyatta and Odinga families are among the founding dynasties of independent Kenya, and their respective leaders are ipso facto chiefs amongst two important tribal groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo, whose feelings for each other might be compared, with all due regard for the shortcomings of comparisons in matters of history and geography, to the ones that marked the relations between Yorks and Lancasters in days of yore.
The Kikuyu felt wronged by the hardy settlers who came from England in the early decades of the 20th century and finagled, in Kikuyu eyes, land they turned into green gold. But the Luo felt the same way toward the Kikuyu. Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father and leader of the feared Mau Mau, sought reconciliation. He offered Oginga Odinga, Raila’s father, co-presidency, acknowledging his contribution to the national movement. Before long, however, Odinga went into opposition.
Mr. Kenyatta, who is awfully rich, has been serving as second vice premier in the government of President Mwai Kibaki, and Mr. Odinga, who is quite well heeled too, has held the premiership. The arrangement is the result of a compromise hatched in 2008 when the party of President Kibaki, who was running for re-election notwithstanding his earlier pledge not to do so, was accused by the party of Mr. Odinga, his principal challenger, of cheating. However, as Mr. J. Fund has documented extensively, even we, Americans, are not immune to electoral fraud.
Thus the sons had an opportunity to bury ancient hatchets. Instead they spent the past five years scheming for the day Mwai Kibaki , the Henry Clay of Kenyan politics, would return to his village. How to put the fix in? What to do if it did not take? Steal it outright? Courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, our government sent word that clean elections, after all, are an improvement. The locals could be forgiven for asking, over what? It seems telling that Mr. Odinga got himself a legal eagle, not a democracy missionary from the NED (National Endowment for Democracy), when he sensed things were not going his way.
Electoral fraud hysterics are scarcely the specialty of the U.S. and Kenya. As the world’s peoples, organized in nations, increasingly view democratic choice as the core element giving a regime legitimacy, the flouting of procedural rules in elections become matters of grave public interest — and basic political skills — as does the determination of who can be put on voter rolls.
On both counts, our own national experience ought to be a source of both concern and perspective, maybe some humility as well. During the 2007-2008 troubles, the consensus among observers was that there had been irregularities in the election. However, Kibaki, who had broken with the single-party system imposed by Jomo Kenyatta after his falling out with the elder Odinga, and his successor, long-serving Daniel arap-Moi, and fought through the 1990s for the multi-party democracy that was now functioning less than perfectly, was viewed as the man able to avert the country’s fall into outright tribal war, as well as the architect of considerable, if uneven, economic development.
A grand bargain was achieved, with some help from outside mediators such as Kofi Annan, and the contending parties agreed to more or less govern together, with the result that Kenya had its own gridlock at the top of its government for the past four years — which in fact may have been a blessing in disguise.
But there are large public issues that many Kenyan voters feel need to be addressed, and following the minimal-government hiatus, a case can be made that this time there needs to be a clear winner with a mandate. Given that Kenya’s issues are East Africa’s, and even beyond that the whole continent’s, it is understandable that foreign governments are paying attention to the current dispute. Kenya plays a critical role in the regional economy, with a competitive financial sector whose leadership is largely English-educated. The Kenya security forces advised by U.S. missions contain mayhem and violence spreading out of such unstable countries as Somalia and the two Sudans. The continuing anarchy in Congo is not Kenya’s responsibility, but if ever peace is restored there Kenya will have an important role among regional leaders.
Focusing on Kenya’s political process is, perhaps, a way of flattering its people; it is a way for foreign observers to insist they take their own standards seriously. But it is not without risks. If the Supreme Court does not satisfy the plaintiffs, will they feel that international public opinion gives them the support they need to press their case in the streets? Raila Odinga’s supporters clashed with riot police in Nairobi a few days ago. We must admit that in many societies, the democratic process is not appreciated as being more important than its results.
It is impossible not to be reminded by a comment of Daniel Moynihan’s many years ago, expanded upon in one of his books, on the statesmanship displayed by Richard Nixon in the wake of the 1960 election. Fifty years is not such a long time, and moreover many of our elections since then have been lost with less grace.
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