Events

Failed elections: Kenya's Vicious Cycle

May 20, 2009 // 9:30am11:00am
Webcast
Coming Soon
Video of this event will be posted here soon.

Within the scholarly community and different policy-making circles, the widespread understanding is that elections coupled with a multiparty system are not always an accurate marker of the degree of democracy in a country. The December 2007 Kenyan elections exemplify this seeming paradox; several political parties were represented and Kenyan citizens were not openly disenfranchised, however, the violence that erupted as a direct aftermath of the elections and a widespread belief that the process was manipulated and corrupted are evidence of a weak democratic process that potentially misrepresents the voice of the Kenyan population. In an Africa Program event on May 20, 2009 moderated by Africa Program director, Howard Wolpe, Justice Johann Kriegler, a South African human-rights lawyer and Constitutional Court Judge presented the findings of the Review Commission report on the 2007 Kenyan elections. A self-described "practical administrator" who has seen and understands difficult elections, and has been personally involved in several complicated elections, boldly stated that the Kenyan presidential, parliamentary and local elections were a "comprehensive failure", and that Kenya "needs transformation desperately".

According to Kriegler, the role of the Review Commission appointed by the African Union, which he chaired, was not to determine who won the elections, rather to evaluate what went wrong, why it went wrong, and to make recommendations based on its findings. A thorough investigation entailed 38 election site visits, 1200 witness testimonies, expert study of reports, and legal representation of political parties presenting arguments to the Commission. The overall finding was that at every level, the elections were technically flawed, politically abused, and scored null on credibility by the body politic. Twelve hundred or more people died in the aftermath of riots, demonstrations and violence targeted mainly at Kikuyus, and 300 to 400 thousand men, women and children were rendered homeless, deprived of any means of income generation. Kriegler suggested that unless something is done, this will be a permanent loss to the Kenyan population and to the country as a whole.

Kriegler stressed that unless the causes and the depth and breadth of the animosity are recognized, effective solutions to the Kenyan societal problems will remain illusory. One of the first steps would be the acknowledgement by Kenyan society at large that the widespread and ongoing atrocities following the elections were ethnically-based. It took strong international pressure to dampen the violence and to reach settlement, which, while it may have saved thousands of lives, is an impermanent stopgap solution. Kriegler quoted an attendee at a Geneva conference on the situation in Kenya, "You put a plaster on a septic sore; it is festering under the plaster although you can't see the pus on the surface". Despite the slightly caustic language of this quote Kriegler deemed it "not inappropriate" given the current circumstances in Kenya.

How did Kenya fall from grace, transitioning so suddenly from democracy into chaos? Why did it happen? And how, if at all, can a repetition be avoided? Kriegler suggested that there is no simple answer to any of these questions. The first question, he argued, is a false one because prior to 2007, Kenya was not truly a representative multiparty system. Kriegler offered several interrelated reasons for the descent into violence. Training for the transition to a representative democracy was rushed, belated, and incomplete when Jomo Kenyatta took the reigns of the country from the British; the introduction of a multiparty system in 1991 was more in principle than in reality as it took ten years, from the 1992 to the 2002 elections, for the opposition to take power out of the hands of Arap Moi, despite controversy over political killings in both 1994 and 1997, an increasing level of political oppression during his tenure as president, and allegations of electoral fraud. It is widely believed, however, that the main contributing factor to his electoral victory was a deeply divided opposition party.

In 2002 Kenya experienced the de facto multiparty system election of Mwai Kibaki under the auspices of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC); Kibaki defeated his opponent from the Kenya African Union (KANU) party, which had ruled the country since independence. Kriegler remarks, however, that this "rainbow" is a illusory. Although Moi accepted defeat and a sense of solidarity permeated the country, the 2002 elections were administrative "messes". Along with the 1992 and 1997 elections, the 2002 elections were badly run and did not have a decent election roll, a fundamental pillar of running legitimate elections. Furthermore, the constituency delimitation map was gerrymandered to such an extent that in the 2007 elections the largest constituency had 250 thousand voters, and the smallest 15 thousand, in order to advantage Arap Moi's rift valley and Western alliance, and to disadvantage the Kikuyu area. Owing to these flawed electoral processes, during the 1990s several thousands of people were killed in electoral violence, and half a million people were rendered refugees. The international community made no admonitions, and did not even threaten to discontinue sources of social and economic support.

The November 21, 2005 Referendum, intended to implement constitutional reform, was voted down by a 62% majority of Kenya's voters, and the constitution prolongs imperialist modes of governance begun under British rule. Kriegler warned that a state concerned more with self-interest than with human rights or a theory of universal freedom cannot survive in the long run. The electoral commissioner in the 2007 elections was appointed by the President, and was suspected of having a political bias that would have influenced the outcome. A lack of credibility, suspicion of the referee, an incomplete electoral roll skewed against women and certain ethnic groups, and a lack of technological support all led to the outbursts of violence. One fundamental problem was that the purpose of the elections was generally misunderstood by the electoral commission.

In order to deal with the ongoing deterioration of Kenya's political situation, Kriegler admitted that there are no easy solutions, but he made a few basic recommendations. He emphasized that internally, methods for countering electoral corruption and ensuring the electoral commission's competence have to be implemented. He stressed the necessity for complete financial independence of the Kenyan Electoral Commission as the only way to enable its full legitimacy. Externally, he called for a return to basic principles. The international community has to be unbending regarding their condemnation of a dictatorial regime, and unlike in the past, not turn a blind eye to the abuses being committed in Kenya.

Upcoming Events

Webcast

Impact of Low Oil Prices: Petro Power or Petro Poverty?

October 31, 2014 // 10:00am11:30am

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.