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Keith Jennings writes on the blatant disregard for democratic principles in Kenya's contentious elections and the Bush administration's flawed foreign policy

In the immediate aftermath of the recent elections in Kenya, the Bush Administration wasted no time in sending its glowing congratulations to incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and the Kenyan Election Commission. But despite the subsequent attempt to ignore the congratulatory message, and adamant claim of a global commitment to democracy, the Bush Administration’s official stamp of approval for Kibaki and the elections reflected a de facto endorsement of a naked power grab and contempt for the democratic process.

To be sure, the Bush administration’s eagerness to embrace a stage-managed election reveals a sharp inconsistency between pronouncement and practice -- declining to support calls for a re-count and urging “all candidates to accept the Commission’s final result.” Some would argue that the Bush focus on security and economic interest supersede its rhetoric for democracy. Clearly, the Bush statement and its later about-face joint statement with Kenya’s former colonial masters –the British- reflects morally bankrupt policies which only see Kenya as a staunch ally and “frontline state in the global war on terrorism.”

The Kenyan people participated in a democratic process to elect the representatives of their choice. When the election results were leaning toward the challenger and long time pro-democracy activist, Raila Odinga, the democratic process was over taken by manipulation and fraud. How can a U.S. Administration that preaches democracy in almost biblical terms refuse to pressure the Kenyan government for a re-count or an independent audit? Of course, this question may strike some Americans as naïve in the light of the Florida and Ohio fiascos in our own 2000 & 2004 presidential elections.

After the Bush Administration, offered congratulations to Mwai Kibaki on December 30, in the midst of widespread violent clashes between civilians and Kenyan police, I have to agree with those commentators who have been critical of the Bush Administration’s democracy promotion policy in Africa. Moreover, how can the views of hundreds of European international observers, who proclaim a “staggering mismatch” between recorded vote counts at local polling stations and what the Election Commission officials announced, be ignored. One wonders what the Administration would be saying if this were Zimbabwe or Burma.

The fighting in the streets of Nairobi and police abuse started long before the recent election results were announced. In the pre-election period, numerous human rights violations occurred including the killing and beating of dozens of women candidates and widespread intimidation and violence against opposition politicians. Recent poll results indicate fraudulent vote counting in at least 72 constituencies, which equate to an undermining of the electoral process and a democratic set back once again on the African continent. While the democratic process should never be reduced to an election, it is during an election that the strength of a country’s democratic system is put to the test. This is clearly the case in Kenya.

After years of autocratic rule by Daniel Moi (who’s home was burned down last week), citizens from all walks of life and political persuasions closed ranks to elect a new government in 2002, one that promised never to treat the people the way they had been sidelined and marginalized by previous governments. The promises were soon broken as charges of corruption were leveled against high ranking members of the Kibaki Administration. Consequently, the Kenyan people rightfully expected and democratically prepared for change.

It is important to note that Kibaki’s party won only 35 of 210 parliamentary seats losing more than 20 of his cabinet ministers, including his vice president. These facts alone reveal the deep seated and widespread public resentment against the legendary corruption of the Kibaki Administration.
With an official result producing a less than 233,000 vote difference (4,584,721 for Kibaki to 4,352,993 for Odinga), what is in order is a recount and an independent audit of the tallying process and final results, not a hasty swearing-in of the controversial President for another five years with Bush’s blessings. That swearing-in was immediately followed by a media ban on live coverage of events, a ban on all public rallies and threats from the declared winner to “deal decisively with those who breach the peace.” We have heard those words before. The Kenyan peoples’ right of peaceful assembly and expression should be respected by the current government. The attempt to suppress any opposition to the fraudulent election results is bound to fail and only lead to more violence and conflict.

As it has been reported in the Kenyan and international media, even the Kenyan Election Commission chair, Samuel Kivuilu, admits that the Commission was under pressure by government, which raises questions of its independence. Commissioner Kivuilu also states that he is not sure ‘if Kibaki won the elections.’ At least five other Commissioners have said they are certain that the vote count was manipulated.

The Kibaki power grab may well cause Kenya, a model of stability in the East Africa region, to become another in the growing list of African countries that risk slipping down the path of ethnic conflict amidst a rekindling of old prejudices that has led to genocide in neighboring countries.

We have seen the U.S. government prioritizing its security concerns over democracy promotion in Africa before. Who can ever forget the shameful April 2007 elections in Nigeria, which provides the US with 12% of its oil needs? Nigerians refer to that election as the most fraudulent elections ever held in the country. Despite calls for electoral reform, official U.S. congratulations to Yar’Adua were followed by a recent White House visit, which ended with Yar’Adua promoting the establishment of the U.S. African Military Command that could potentially place U.S. soldiers throughout the continent despite opposition in Nigeria. No wonder many believe there is scant U.S. commitment to global democracy when its economic and military interests are relevant. The Bush Administration’s policies appear to respond to narrow, ill-perceived security and economic imperatives that will ultimately lead to long-term instability in Kenya and other parts of Africa.

It is more than noteworthy that as the 2005 Ethiopian elections were being won by the opposition at such an unprecedented rate that the Melis government intervened and halted the announcement of results. After a series of recounts and adjudication trails, which the opposition was not prepared for, it was once again business as usual, a witch’s brew of repression and torture. The arrest and detention on treason charges of all major opposition leaders followed. The Bush administration, which also sees Ethiopia as a staunch ally in the war on terror who is more than willing to do its bidding in Somalia, offered congratulations to Melis on his victory and urged “dialogue” and “reconciliation.”

As the optimism of the 1990s has given way to the more vexing problem of making democracy deliver on its promises, the past few years have been filled with setbacks for the democratic process in Africa, with the possible exceptions of the 2005 elections in Liberia and the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone. And the U.S. has been largely silent in its actions to reverse those setbacks.
The peace in Kenya was breached long before the day when the elections were stolen. Sanctimonious calls for peace, compromise and reconciliation will do no good when the people’s confidence in the democratic process is what is at stake and the legitimacy of those making the calls for “law and order” or respect for the rule of law is questioned.

The issue here is about power and the future of democracy in Africa not ethnic rivalries. Unfortunately some of the big men in Africa, as in other parts of the world, have not realized how to share power or to let it go when the will of the people is against their continued stay in office. There are those who talk about freedom and democracy but practice autocratic policies, they never really believed in the will of the people to begin with. What will be the world’s response to the farce currently underway in Kenya? Democracy in Africa or business as usual?

* Dr. Keith Jennings is President of the African American Human Rights Foundation and former Director of Citizen Participation for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He can be reached at [email][email protected]

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