Special Report

The Kenya Syndrome

When does universal improvement get in the way of the national interest?

By 3.21.13

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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.

But such a class act should not be an invitation to extreme moderation. You can go too far in the direction of “best is enemy of acceptable” kind of thinking. By looking the other way during 20 years of questionable procedural practices in Mali, not just at election time but in the whole way the state functioned, up to and very much including the manner in which its high officials “administered” foreign aid, neither we nor the French, who were with us probably the Western power most invested in the idea of the “Malian model” of liberal democratic development in West Africa, we contributed to turning Mali into a Pokemkin village, behind whose democratic papier mache sets were the far more consequential practices of a corrupt state.

This state was rescued in the eleventh hour from the jihado-criminal gangs whose activities it had tolerated if not enabled by our gallant French allies, with some background help (logistics, transport, aerial surveillance from us) and the tactical knowhow and desert toughness of the thousands of troops from Chad brought in to reinforce French forces. Thus the grandsons of men who joined Leclerc’s tank columns in the epic of Free France more than half a century ago and made their way north to rendezvous with Montgomery and trap the Nazi desert fox in his lair, now are battling the Sahara radicals in the Ifhogas mountains of Mali’s northeast, once again under French leadership, if not formal command.

The French have stated they cannot stay indefinitely, though they have been flexible in defining their return date. Our own position is that our aid to Mali depends on the resumption of democratic procedures, and specifically the holding of a presidential election -- the one that should have been held last April but was spoiled by a putsch led by a U.S.-trained captain -- as soon as possible, the current target date being July.

It is, be it said parenthetically, interesting how our democratic scruples evaporate the moment the damn thing known as the will of the majority becomes inconvenient. In the Falklands, an ancient English land off the coast of South America, the population recently affirmed overwhelmingly, in a free and fair election, its allegiance to the Union Jack. Yet in the face of huffing and puffing from the Peronist ruling clique in Argentina regarding spurious claims to what they call the Malvinas, our government -- our administration, more exactly -- chooses to ignore the democracy it invokes elsewhere -- in Mali for example -- and hems and haws about divergent interpretations as to the islands’ status. What the islanders actually want and have made clear they want, the Obama administration views with contempt. But I digress.

However, the French, too, are susceptible to democratic scruples. After all, they are a democracy. Their republic is a democracy. It might be well for conservatives to think about this when they can get their minds off the what-ifs and what-nexts that filled their minds during the warm and good-natured CPAC weekend. Are we a republic or are we a democracy? Is our democracy undermining our republic, or would republican virtues be too austere for our democratic appetites? Do you conduct foreign policy as a democracy with moral principles or as a republic with national interests?

Republicans abroad and democrats at home, the French sent their own and Chad’s finest into Mali’s embattled north and chased out of it the katibas of the terrorist internationale. They took no prisoners. They permitted no press. The first condition depends on the second, due to democratic scruples in France. In France, the ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who once allowed as how being president of France was a pain because the money was not good enough. The current president, François Hollande, could have answered, in republican fashion, using tu not vous, Robespierre speaking to Danton, On y est pour nettoyer la chienlit que tu y a mis en allant chercher la gloire en Libye. We are cleaning up the mess brought on by your glorymongering in Libya. But he did not. He said, like a democrat, We are there because the north of the country has been taken over by men who oppress women.

Note that we did the same. Why are we still fighting in Afghanistan? Because we want to end the oppression of women, put a halt to fraud at the polls, and give the National Endowment for Improvement something for which to claim credit. I do not equate oppression of women with fraud at the polls. Maybe there is a correlation and we cannot fix one without fixing the other.

Northern Mali, which fell under the sway of Islamic yahoos last year due to the ineptitudes and shortcomings of the Malian leadership, has not been a good place for a woman to live lately. But then it has not been a good place for a woman to live ever. Mali in general, not only in the north, is one of the places where what they call female genital mutilation is widely practiced. Universally? No, but widely. It is impolite to ask, but doctors and human rights activists give you their estimates, and they are alarming. Reportedly it got worse last year, and now it is back to what would be considered normal, but their normal is not our normal.

Has it become impossible to say -- as a matter of fact, not of political preference -- that their normal is not our normal? Or is the aim of our foreign policy to make our normal -- which keeps changing -- everybody else’s normal?

Democracy in Kenya is applauded, notably by our new secretary of state, who sent a message of congratulations to the voters. He did not send a word to the putative winner. It could have been tact -- knowing there was a challenge underway, it might be well to hold back until you are sure who is in.

However, it is also a fact that in 2007, then-Senator Obama and at present Mr. Kerry’s boss and benefactor, visiting Kenya, spoke in favor of his cousin Raila Olinga. This was altogether unprecedented in the history of senatorial political tourism. It is one thing for our solons, whether or not they are considering runs of the White House, to visit the three I’s and taste the humus, the pasta, and the cabbage; it is, or was, quite another thing to inject themselves into another country’s political campaign. We do have some traditions of doing it on the sly -- the famous help brought to the Christian Democrats in the 1948 Italian elections, or the clean election seminars brought to such countries as Egypt by our democracy missionaries (well, if we can help get the Catholic party into power in a Catholic country, why not help the Muslim party get into power in a Muslim country?) But the 2007 campaign in Kenya took the notion of playing favorites to a new level. It is not completely unreasonable to think that one reason Raila cried foul and sent his people into the street was that he had been given to think that “the Americans” -- we were still an awesome power then, with a reputation for getting things done -- would intervene.

We did not, and the winners struck back with the full force not only of the state but of their own tribal militias, so it is alleged, and this on the strength of Mr. Kenyatta’s mobilization and incitement of same. This is why the prosecutors of the ICC indicted him. You have to be careful of what you say to people, they take words as promises. You cannot help yourself sometimes. Peace in our time. Korea outside our defensive perimeter. Hungary shall be free. Words. Terrible consequences.

The Odingas were and are, since independence, the limousine liberals of Kenyan politics, and it should be recalled they took this trait to dangerous lengths, flirting with the Soviets when the latter were players in the African great game. Their footsie-play with East Africa’s Islamist movements never has been explained satisfactorily. Maybe it was just a matter of two outs joining against the ins. It could have been a case of épater le bourgeois, the sort of political recklessness that explains, though only up to a point, the Western left’s occasional infatuation with overtly anti-Western causes. Then, too, if you are anti-bourgeois to the extent of having played games with the Soviets, why not continue the game by other means? At any rate, to the degree radical Islam has a wire into Kenyan politics, it is via the Luo, who like other Kenyans are predominantly Catholics and Anglicans.

Raila played all this down, to be sure, during his premiership and during the recent campaign. In a democracy candidates present themselves as they are, or as they wish to be, or as they wish to be perceived. The voters choose. It is tough enough making the system work, as a way to pick a government, when you speak their language and have some understanding of their family backgrounds. Whether we should factor into our strategic decisions how well we like the way the system works in a distant country is a tough question. Which may be why we seldom talk about it.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.