Show sidebar

Kenya’s Elections Matter for the U.S.

A police officer watches over a polling station at Olympic Primary School in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, on August 8, 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Today, Kenyans are heading to the polls in nationwide elections to determine the political future of their country. Whether things will turn bloody is yet to be seen but history provides plenty of cautionary tales about the potential for electoral violence and difficult lessons learned on how to prevent it. While the government claims it is taking adequate measures to ensure clean elections, both international observers and local civil society have expressed concerns about deteriorating security conditions, a lack of press freedom  and interference by the ruling party that could undermine the democratic process.

Chris Musando, a senior official of the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission, was discovered assassinated last week, sending shockwaves through the country. He seems to have been tortured before he was executed but authorities have so far failed to apprehend the culprits. Meanwhile, opposition leader Raila Odinga alleged that members of the Kenya Defense Forces were reportedly  instructed to follow predetermined “crowd control measures” that resemble pro-government interference if the elections become contested. Opposition candidates also claim they are being harassed by agents of the ruling party.

Warning signs abound, the need to ensure a safe and inclusive election is paramount. Ten years after an outbreak of political violence that killed some 1,500 people in the wake of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2007 election which featured allegations of election fraud, the country seems to be continuing down a path of democratic backsliding while corruption remains rampant.

What happens next in Kenya, simply put, matters for the United States. A longstanding regional ally, the country is of strategic importance in the fight against terrorism. The U.S. has long provided military and intelligence support to Kenya, and together they have undertaken joint activities to stem the threat of Al Shabaab, which has carried out a spate of attacks in Nairobi and elsewhere in recent years. Kenya is also home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world – Daadab – which hosts displaced populations from mainly Somalia and Sudan.

During the Obama years, the two countries enjoyed a warm relationship thanks in part to the former president’s familial connection to Kenya, but Washington consistently prioritized democratic values in bilateral exchanges. Under the Trump, the extent to which democracy promotion will remain a cornerstone of American foreign policy is unclear. Not only has the current U.S. president expressed his admiration for a range of autocrats including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, there are also questions swirling around Secretary of State’s Rex Tillerson’s commitment to human rights. The State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, which has been dedicated to tackling war crimes and helping to protect human rights since the 1990s, will supposedly be closed as part of a shake-up initiated by Tillerson, and there are rumors that the administration may put democracy and the rule of law on the back burner of its foreign policy and national security agenda altogether. In a speech to State Department staff earlier this year, Tillerson insinuated that promoting human rights and democratic values “creates obstacles” to American security and economic interests. This echoed a similar tone taken by Trump in his inaugural address.

Moving in such a direction would be shameful not only because it risks betraying America’s founding democratic values and a decades-long history of advancing the cause of human rights abroad, but also because of strategic imperatives related to international security. Any retreat by the United States in the region creates further opportunities for other powers to exploit.

Unresolved grievances owing to a lack of justice associated with the last spate of election related violence combined leave this U.S. ally vulnerable to increased instability. In addition to the 1,500 deaths after the 2007 elections, torture, rape, and forced displacement were also widespread, and the political violence ran along ethnic cleavages that exacerbated tribal rivalries. The International Criminal Court further complicated the political situation after the election when then prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo opened an investigation into Kenyatta and five other high profile individuals in 2010 for their roles in enabling crimes against humanity during the previous election cycle. The case generated both domestic and international criticism for a variety of reasons and the Court was ultimately unable to further pursue its case without the indicted six in custody.

Although a national transitional justice process aimed at repairing some of the damage caused by the violence surrounding Kenyatta’s 2007 election took place from 2008 to 2012, the Kenyatta administration was largely uncooperative. Almost from the start, Kenyatta’s government went to work undermining the principal vehicle for the reconciliation process, the Kenya Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).

Established by the Kenyan parliament in 2008, the commission had an expansive mandate to investigate violence related to the 2007 election in addition to historical human rights violations that have long beleaguered significant parts of the population including those committed during past dictatorships. The commission called for financial restitution to victims of economic crimes, land reform to help poor farmers and marginalized groups, symbolic reparations to victims of sexual and gender based violence, public apologies for massacres, truth-telling about extrajudicial killings and state-sponsored torture, and erection of memorials to those who perished amongst other proposals.

After Kenyatta and Deputy Vice President William Ruto took charge of the government, they first obstructed the work of the TJRC – with some commissioners reporting that the Office of the President tried to interfere with the report’s content and publication – and then failed to stick to the timetable for issuing remedies laid out in the commission’s final report. In one of the surest signs yet that impunity continues to reign in Kenya, Ruto recently claimed that the government would not follow through with implementation of the recommendations that the TJRC put forward in its final report published in 2013. The lack of accountability for both targeted and indiscriminate political violence over the last decade has left many Kenyans yearning for justice. And there is a risk that this yearning will develop into resentment and revenge.

The U.S. should send clear signals to Kenya, and our allies and adversaries elsewhere, of unwavering dedication to supporting free and fair elections, encouraging democratic pluralism, and upholding basic freedoms. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) has announced that she will head an American delegation to Kenya to observe polls, as per the international norm on election monitoring, but the message should also be unambiguous from Foggy Bottom that the stoking of ethnic tension, orchestration or encouragement of election related violence, and targeting or intimidation of opposition members are categorically unacceptable. The world is watching: Kenya’s stability, prosperity, and international legitimacy are at stake.

Image: Andrew Renneisen/Getty

Tags: , ,


About the Author

is the author of Women and Transitional Justice: Progress and Persistent Challenges in Retributive and Restorative Processes (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). She is a Soros New American Fellow pursuing her Ph.D. in political science at Yale University.