January 31, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 25
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Sham elections in Kenya: A tragic setback for democracy in Africa

Dr. Keith Jennings

In the immediate aftermath of last month’s 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 recount and urging “all candidates to accept the Commission final result” — particularly in light of the unrest and violence that have followed the disputed outcome.

Some would argue that the Bush administration’s focus on security and economic interest supersede its rhetoric for democracy. Clearly, both the Bush statement and its later about-face joint statement with Kenya’s former colonial masters, the British, reflect morally bankrupt policies that see Kenya solely 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 recount 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 and 2004 presidential elections.

After seeing the Bush administration offer congratulations to Mwai Kibaki on Dec. 30 — in the midst of widespread violent clashes between civilians and police that have since escalated into full-scale riots claiming the lives of over 700 Kenyans — 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, all of whom 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 election results were announced. In the pre-election period, numerous human rights violations occurred, including the killing and beating of dozens of female candidates and widespread intimidation and violence against opposition politicians. Post-vote poll results indicated fraudulent vote-counting in at least 72 constituencies, equating to an undermining of the electoral process and yet another democratic setback on the African continent. While the democratic process should never be reduced to merely an election, it is during an election that the strength of a country’s democratic system is put to the test. This was clearly the case in Kenya.

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.”

The Kibaki power grab may well cause Kenya, a model of stability in East Africa, 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.

The issue here is 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 current farce in Kenya?

Democracy in Africa? Or business as usual?

Dr. Keith Jennings is the president of the African American Human Rights Foundation.

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