The Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) recently posted on its website a Contingency Planning Memorandum on Electoral Violence in Kenya. The document seems to have gained traction as an unofficial country risk analysis, with its identification of dangerous elements; possible scenarios; warning indicators; preventative prescriptions; mitigation and recommendations. Feeling slighted, nationalist critiques have rushed to pour water on it. This is because of what they perceive as the text’s “preordained” conclusion on the inevitability of violence in the country that depicts its citizens as mindless entities ready to descend into chaos. These assessments fault the memo’s concern for American interests over those of the East African region. These reviews are also critical of how recent acts of violence are depicted as tribal and perpetrated by armed militia without naming them.
As an American organization, the noticeable CFR partiality toward providing information that will secure its country’s interests in the region should not leave the Kenyan intelligentsia smarting. This is their obligation – to provide their institutions with the best possible ideas in the face of any possible circumstance. Thus, Barkan does a good job of advising and advancing US interests. However, does he do Kenyans’ a disservice by not accurately describing the latest flares in fighting? For one, he leaves responses to preconceived notions that are based on the precedent of the crisis situation in 2007/08 while the current context is markedly different. God forbid! This is likely to give Kenya the solution of another “hobbling” government for another five years. While he recognizes the complexity of instituting a new devolved system, the real dynamics of multiple arenas in political competition seem not to factor in his analysis.
Large scale violence in the country almost always has tribal underpinnings, but the precise reasons for these flashes would provide more informed reactions. Other than the slaughter of police servicemen in the course of mediating a case of cattle rustling between two communities in Baragoi’s Suguta Valley; the Tana Delta has been the only other major discomfiture. This was because of politically instigated tribal violence that also resulted in the death of officers. Therefore, Barkan’s depiction of numerous tribal militias does not apply to the case of other conflicts or riots that have taken place.
To list a few, the clashes in Mathare were a reaction to a criminal incident in the area pitting members of one slum valley against the other. An incident in Huruma was a protest against poor security and residents were demanding better services. Residents in Garissa – in the North Eastern region that borders Somalia – were demanding the same; particularly because they lie within the sphere of ongoing war with terrorist militants who cross over the border causing chaos. Kawangare’s recent flare up was in response to the fatal occurrence of a woman who was thrown off a moving bus for not having the extra ten shillings demanded.
The more worrying situation is: the occurrence of periodic bombings –associated with the Al Shabaab elements in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate – that almost claimed the life of immediate former Member of Parliament for Kamkunji Yusuf Hassan; and the secessionist skirmishes the authorities have sporadically faced against the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC). The group has surprisingly toned down its rhetoric and retreated from its militant activities after entreaties from senatorial aspirant Mike ‘Sonko’ Mbuvi. A more plausible reason would be the fact that a number of avenues for negotiation have been opened to the group by politicians, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and civil society groups. What is not known is, if this is a genuine or tactical withdrawal.
Tensions are obviously simmering but an intrinsic case by case look at these situations, points only to the accuracy of Barkan’s recommendation of encouraging extended police training and recruitment through multilateral efforts. This is very important and beneficial to the Kenyan interest. Second only to the support for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), this capacity building would enable proper security provision before, during and after the conduct of the elections.
On the other hand, Kenyan nationalists cannot choose to gloss over these tensions and resulting clashes for the sake of being patriotic. Barkan opens a can of worms that exposes the fragility of the state. It’s high time there was some owning up to the fact that all violence matters, in terms of how it presents our situation to the region and the world. This is important especially if it is political – as was witnessed in the fiasco of party primaries. Also, institutional weaknesses are evident with regards to the IEBC’s continual lack of resolve in keeping to deadlines, as was the case in the provision of the electoral register that was provided late; continued extensions in the submission of party nominee lists; and harassment of its officials by political operators of one form or the other. In hindsight, lest it is forgotten, the wavering character of the previous electoral body is what ushered the country its previous turmoil.
Nonetheless, the memo serves another purpose as it exposes what ideas American foreign policy wonks on East Africa are toying with. First, it is indicative of what kind of action to expect from western powers in the event of crisis. Secondly, and more specifically, it provides a hint on what basis sanctions will apply. In the former instance a military option is an unfavourable, and more importantly, an unlikely prospect. It is clear that a proposition to “pre-position” a heavy diplomatic mission in Nairobi to complement an expanded panel of eminent African personalities is likely to advance. This will be with the support of world leaders led by President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Such a diplomatic endeavour would focus primarily on supporting the IEBC. Judging by the rounds the IEBC chairman Isaak Hassan has been doing with donors, this is supposedly in effect. It would also include independent activities such as developing a donor driven parallel vote tabulation mechanism. Obviously, this is not likely to go down well with nationalist sentiments and sovereignty arguments are bound to follow. Lastly, enhanced civil society engagement would be expected especially with the confirmation of Robert Godec as Ambassador to Kenya, who is charged with the mandate of “underscoring commitment to free, fair, and peaceful elections” as stated by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The latter case in point shows that, besides what could be considered as a travesty to the international value system and norms in the event of a Jubilee Coalition win, sanctions will only be instigated if there is any sense of American interests being jeopardized. The concern here is mainly the risk of regional contamination in the event of violence considering the massive geopolitical stability projects the US is involved in partnership with East African states. These include the: pacification of Somalia; counter terrorism initiatives; stability between North and South of Sudan.
Any violence would obviously have spill over effects to the economies in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda that depend on Kenya for their external trade. This is in terms of importing refined petroleum products and exporting goods through the port of Mombasa. Even so, American economic interests in agriculture and private investment would play a huge role in their considerations. The interests of American multinationals such as General Electric, IBM, and Google in setting up regional headquarters, while exploiting the rapid growth in the services and the information technology sector, are significant motivating factors to ensure the country sticks to the straight and narrow.
Military assistance to Kenya, which has been in place for over thirty years, would be halted. If Kenya reciprocated by denying access to airports and its seaport for American aircrafts and ships that would be a great loss to the US for its security initiatives beyond the region. Yet, Kenya would lose more from suspended development support in terms of social services largely in health. The cutting of social-cultural relations that facilitates access to university education for Kenya’s best and brightest would directly affect its citizenry.
Therefore, the defensive posture in nationalist argumentation can thus be said to be a struggle with having been perceived as a failed state. This is in light of many achievements, since the post election violence (PEV) period, that never seem to consume the failures of the last election. This reaction, however, falls short by not grasping the logic behind any form of commentary on Kenya that is deemed negative. To them such connotations must be tempered by ‘discipline’ that does not excite lawlessness or threaten livelihoods that are mostly sustained through foreign exchange earnings.
Barkan’s memo or any form of critical thought processes, said out loud, makes nationalists feel like they are attending their last rights from a Roman Missal granting them eternal rest. It’s time they show more spine in the faith of their convictions.
Leonard Wanyama works for the Society for International Development in Nairobi.