15 June 2009

The Boston Globe sent a man to Nairobi for this?

For some reason, the almost under Globe sent a reporter to do a story about Kenya that could have been done at home.  Part of me thinks he lied because all he mentions is a brief moment being asked about Obama in a Nairobi market.  With that said, it does provide a rather succinct summary of the post-election violence and the fact that the perpetrators of the violence have gone without punishment a year and a half later.  All in all it is worth the read.

Kenya's politics of impunity

June 15, 2009

JUST A year and a half ago, Kenya seemed on the verge of all-engulfing violence, after a contested December 2007 presidential election degenerated into widespread ethnic strife. So the first job for an unwieldy new coalition government here is to walk the country back from the precipice. One obvious test of a government's worthiness is whether or not those in power can incite violence and even murder people without being punished for it.

On this count, Kenya fails.

A new report by a special United Nations investigator concludes that officials who organized and instigated post-election violence "remain immune from prosecution almost 18 months later." The investigator, Philip Alston, also accused Kenya's police of harboring death squads that murder criminal suspects. He concluded that the police here "frequently execute individuals, and that a climate of impunity prevails."

Impunity is only one feature of a political establishment that makes halting progress against Kenya's economic and health problems, but shows much greater efficiency in siphoning off public resources and exploiting ethnic division for political gain. I am in Kenya on a trip for US journalists organized by the International Reporting Project. The question at hand is whether Kenya's leaders have the capacity to mend its wounds, or only to exacerbate them.

An election gone wrong

This could have been a glorious time. Excitement over the half-Kenyan in America's White House is palpable, in the form of Obama-themed posters, paintings, jewelry, bumper stickers, even public health materials; upon meeting a visitor, a vendor in Nairobi's touristy Triangle Market demanded to know which candidate won Massachusetts last fall.

Until recently, Kenyans had concrete reasons for optimism: A transition from dictatorship to a free multiparty democracy seemed near complete in 2002, when presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki defeated the handpicked successor of longtime strongman Daniel arap Moi. The economy grew at a strong 7 percent rate into 2007.

But corruption scandals continued throughout Kibaki's first term. And the 2007 campaign heightened the conflicts simmering among Kenya's 40-odd ethnic groups. Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu group, faced a challenge from former ally Raila Odinga, a Luo.

Playing on ethnic divisions can yield votes. As an official commission later documented, many poor Luos expected huge benefits - including free rent - if Odinga won, and poor Kikuyus feared personal setbacks if Kibaki lost.

The official count, which mysteriously took days to come in, declared Kibaki the winner. Violence broke out, at the instigation of ethnic gangs. More than 1,000 died. Peace came in March, after pressure from US, European, and African diplomats and passionate pleas from the Kenyan media persuaded the rivals to form a coalition government; Kibaki stayed on as president, and Odinga took office in the new, ill-defined post of prime minister.

The fragility of this approach was obvious last week in Geneva, when the UN Human Rights Council took up Alston's report. Odinga had praised the investigator's work; Kibaki's side had prepared a blistering response that denied the existence of police death squads and trashed the findings of the Kenyan government's own human rights agency. In the end, the two sides compromised by admitting to some police misconduct but dismissing Alston's suggestion that the attorney general and police commissioner be ousted. Now other African countries, presumably with Kenya's blessing, are pushing to get the investigator fired.

This defensive reaction undermines the coalition government's promises of meaningful reforms. There is little incentive to divide up the president's power now, when the office is up for grabs again in 2012.

In an interview, Odinga spoke forcefully on the need to reduce corruption and argued that the "institution of the presidency has emasculated all the other institutions of government." But don't send a campaign contribution just yet: Against all evidence, Odinga disputed the notion that Kenya's politics are ethnic in character. And yet he also rebuffed the suggestion that he should have attended a service commemorating a group of Kikuyus who were massacred during the election crisis. They weren't the only ones to be burned to death in church, he said.

Keeping hope alive

In the crowded Nairobi slum of Kibera, an epicenter of violence early last year, civic organizations are trying to tamp down tensions by, for instance, running soccer teams to keep young men occupied. And despite efforts by the Parliament to interfere, the country's news media remain vibrant. With a free press, it's difficult to imagine that impunity for politicians can go on forever.

Yet Kenyan leaders don't seem ready to call the perpetrators of election violence to account. If all else fails, the worst offenders can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court. But involving an international organization would do less to promote reconciliation than an honest effort by Kenyan legal institutions to deal with the country's own problems.

The United States can help. Kenyans are watching President Obama closely, and Washington should use that visibility to push for justice for electoral violence victims, and for a constitution that balances the presidency with competing sources of power. When everything seems to ride on the result of a single presidential election, the urgency to win is bound to cost lives.


© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.