By Joel D. Barkan & Sarah Margon, Special to CNN
Joel D. Barkan is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sarah Margon is deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. They co-chair the Kenya Working Group, a nonpartisan forum for policy experts that seeks to encourage a robust U.S. policy toward Kenya. The views expressed are their own.
As Kenya’s presidential election looms, the Senate nomination hearing this week for Robert Godec to be U.S. ambassador to Kenya is an important step toward furthering the vital role the United States can play in helping to avert another election-related meltdown. Kenya remains an important partner for the United States. Washington and Nairobi have long shared mutual goals – although not always in the same order – to achieve regional peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity. With Kenya the anchor state of eastern Africa, it is important for the United States to actively engage its historical partner.
Kenya’s 2007 hotly contested elections were marked by controversy and violence, resulting in more than 1,100 deaths countrywide and causing more than 600,000 people to flee their homes. In part, the violence was due to flaws in the integrity of the electoral process, which undermined confidence in the results. But much of it also due to deep rifts within Kenyan society, including longstanding political exploitation of ethnic tensions and the profoundly corrupt and abusive nature of the security forces.
Under pressure from the international community, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan negotiated a grand coalition government between President Mwai Kibaki and his former opponent Raila Odinga, and their respective allies to restore peace. Since that time, Kenya has struggled to become a genuine democratic state. Reformers have been trying to promote good governance, basic rights, and the rule of law but individuals clinging to power and attempting to preserve a political system rife with endemic corruption and strongman tactics remain pervasive.
Against this backdrop, Kenya has nonetheless made some important gains on its path to recovery. The economy rebounded to achieve average rates of annual growth of over 5 percent. And a new constitution – which holds the foundational promise of bolstering Kenya’s political transition – passed overwhelming in a peaceful 2010 referendum.
The constitution strengthens parliament and the judiciary so they can be genuine checks on a once-imperial executive branch. It also provides for a quasi-federal system of 47 county governments that holds out, at least ostensibly, the prospect of defusing historical conflicts between Kenya’s largest ethnic groups while providing a measure of resources for the smallest. Full constitutional implementation would also raise the level of accountability and integrity of all elected officials.
Unfortunately, critical elements of the reform effort remain stalled. Enabling legislation on the constitution’s accountability provision was recently watered down when parliament removed key clauses in the Leadership and Integrity Bill. The executive branch is also holding back progress. Police reform is proving tortuously slow. Political violence between competing ethnic groups is ongoing as political leaders ramp up their campaigns for national and local elections scheduled for March 4 and April 11, 2013. The nominally Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), responsible for running the elections, is behind its own timeline in preparing for the election. The failure by the Kenyan government to prosecute those responsible for the 2007 post-election violence shows the complete absence of political will for meaningful accountability. With so many underlying and post-election issues still unaddressed, the upcoming elections run the risk of catalyzing violent clashes at least as bad as the ones that engulfed the country five years ago.
Campaigns for the next round of elections are already in full swing. Regrettably, senior political leaders, including several vying for the top spot, seem intent on winning at all costs – mobilizing the electorate on the basis of ethnic identities and rivalries, allowing hate speech and intimidation of their opponents, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in what is likely to be the most expensive election in Kenya’s history.
With the election four months away, many of the reforms promised by the constitution are stillborn, while the underlying tensions fueled by decades of corruption and impunity remain entrenched. The electorate appears just as polarized today as it was five years ago, perhaps more.
Now more than ever there is a vigorous role for the United States to play, given the current state of play. Having an official ambassador in Nairobi will help ensure that the United States can be a vocal advocate for a policy that makes human rights, good governance and the rule of law top priorities – and that actively focuses on addressing the deeply worrisome avoidance of accountability and impunity for political violence.
Once he’s officially the ambassador, Godec can also ensure that the U.S. works closely with key donor allies in Nairobi including the EU, U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada on a range of issues. These include supporting and pressuring, where needed, the IEBC, which is organizing the election, coordinating a robust presence of international election observers, and meeting with senior Kenyan officials to ensure the police are adequately prepared to prevent and contain violence around the elections, not ignite it.
Finally, having an official ambassador back in Nairobi should prompt vocal public support from the U.S. for the continued diplomatic engagement by Kofi Annan and the African Union’s Panel of Eminent African Personalities, which he chairs. Having come in to help negotiate the 2008 power-sharing arrangement, the U.S. could take the lead in pressing for his mandate to be extended until after the election.
The challenges for Kenya in the coming months are daunting. But with effective representation in Nairobi, the United States has the opportunity to help move President Obama’s ancestral homeland in the right direction – while also working to prevent another election-related disaster.