January 3rd, 2008 Print Print Email Email

I recall distinctly from a distant past a conversation with my best friend, a Kenyan, at a party thrown to congratulate him on his appointment to a senior post in government. (more…)

I recall distinctly from a distant past a conversation with my best friend, a Kenyan, at a party thrown to congratulate him on his appointment to a senior post in government. When I was ready to leave from the party, he came to see me off at the door where I told him how pleased I was at his selection. His head at an angle, he stared at me quietly for moment with half a smile on his face. He then said, “Perhaps, in the circumstances, that is how far I can go as a Luo. That is how high my sky is.”

Jolted by his tone and gravity of the matter, I asked him, “What do you mean?” I must confess my question was to buy time to tune my mind.

“My Kenya is a country with too many skies. Each ethnic group has a sky of its own with a pinnacle. The limit for every one is his/her ethnic sky. A Kikuyu’s sky is higher than mine and that of all others!” he replied with a practiced smile to cover the melancholy that had suddenly engulfed him. Despite our long association, I had never seen him in that mood or state of mind. He and I had known each other for over two decades. Our paths crossed the first time as graduate students when we were rather young and less intimidated by the challenges of age and life. Later, we met at international conferences, rather regularly, following which years later we ended up working for the same employer. These varying associations, and sharing successes and less rewarding moments along the way brought us closer. He was a reliable friend with great forbearance, a brilliant professional with an incisive intellect and, most importantly a human being with a heart and a proud African.

As I was driving back to my place from the party, my mind raced in time and space to figure out his meaning. I began to look for clues why he wished: (a) to share that deeply felt sentiment with me, and (b) the timing, which after all was not that bad from his end, given the recognition accorded him by his selection to a high post. I never raised it with him again, knowing that he had a lot on his plate while he was preparing to go back home to assume his new duties. In any case, never mind what he could have meant; any attempt on my part to find answers would only end up being conjectural. Nevertheless, knowing his thinking as I do, I felt privileged and honoured for his confidence in our friendship. He was giving me the opportunity to see his Kenya no longer with the eyes of an outsider. As time passed, I felt eternally grateful and indebted to him for the honour and trust he had bestowed on me.

After his untimely death, I did exactly that—see Kenya with his eyes. I started by learning what makes Kenya what it is and its attributes. I made it my duty to visit his country extensively and meet his folks. Kenya is essentially a country of great ethnic diversity with rich traditions and cultural heritages. In spite of colonialism, Kenyan society in a way has maintained traditional ties that have served it well in the modern world, as reliable networks and safety nets in good as well as bad times.

The population is generally divided into three groups: Bantu, Cushites and Nilotes. The Kikuyu are of Bantu origin and are the largest ethnic group with 23 percent of the population. They have played leading roles in Kenya’s independence, under Jomo Kenyattaa, the first president, as much as in its modernization in the years after independence. In post independence Kenya, they have enjoyed the benefits of good education; with it has come access to power, privileges and all their trappings.

The Bantu sub-division comprises the Luhya, the second largest group, the Kamba, Embu, Meru, Kisii, Mijikenda, Taveta, Taita Pokomo, Bajuni, Boni and Sanye. In the third group are the Nilotes, which includes the Luo, the third largest ethnic group, followed by the Kalenjin, Maasai, Teso and Samburu. The Somali, Orma, Rendille, and Borana belong to the Cushites sub-group. Kenya also has a non-African group consisting of Asians, Europeans and Arabs mostly.

About 66 percent of Kenyans are Christians, Protestants being the largest majority with 38 percent followed by Roman Catholics comprising 28 percent. Although Kenya has had extensive contacts with the Islamic world for several decades, Moslems make up only seven percent of the population, while traditional religions have 26 percent following. Because of the large Asian community, there are also followers of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and the Bahá’í Faith. English is the official language, Swahili the national language, further enriched by a slew of other local languages.

The essential point here is, in spite of that clear division based on ethnicity, religion and wealth too that is concentrated in few hands, Kenyans have always lived together in peace when most of Africa was wrecked by civil wars, ethnic conflicts and coups. In the 1970s and 1980s, the worst decades for Africa ever, Kenya was one of the very few stable African countries with relatively healthy economic growth, international acceptance and high degree of openness. When neighbouring countries, especially Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda, were going through terrible chaos, unravelling and in search of newer identities, Kenya held its own, widely appreciated for its stability and its relaxed national life. Furthermore, after the late 1970s, its relatively peaceful atmosphere and friendliness to outsiders lured many businesses and international organizations, including news organizations. Some of them vacated tension and conflict-ridden Ethiopia and moved their offices to Nairobi.

With the soullessness of politics, that has now exploited ethnic divisions more than ever before, several hundred people have lost their lives and properties have been destroyed. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that Kenya will not be the same again. The ties that have held Kenyan society together for this long peacefully might have been impaired now. Impunity is contagious and I worry that, if the situation in Kenya is allowed to either fester or succumb to anyone side to the neglect of the others or to outside pressure, those responsible for these deaths and destructions might get away with murder, for that matter, without the country regaining its normalcy.

The AU Chairman Alpha Konare and other representatives of the big powers are in Nairobi, according to the international media, trying to bring the contending parties together to find a way out of this madness. I feel sorry for Kenya that, after long restraint, it has now chosen to go the way of most of Africa. However, I say to it that election-related violence is traumatic and its pain and sufferings too divisive. They take a long, long time to heal, assuming that society has the wisdom to bring healers to power. As an Ethiopian, I only grieve at heart for the many that have fallen victims of violence or deception, if any, and Kenya’s loss of status and image as Africa’s island of stability.

If my Luo friend were still breathing, he would have been heart broken. I would not have known what to say to him to show him how much I share his pain caused by all the evil deeds that are undermining that country at present. As a gentleman, I know that he would have shouted at the height of his voice or used his sharp pen to disapprove of the fraud, if any, or the violence, regardless of who the perpetrators are. In trying to represent the thoughts of a friend who had moved on to a different realm, I may only be trying the unsure, if not the impossible. I hope his family would agree with me that the piece I write here truly reflects his thoughts and his wishes for Kenya and Africa. I am convinced that he would not have sat quietly when death and carnage are tearing apart the Kenya he so much loved and was always proud of.

Therefore, I make the case hereunder on his behalf and that of my own for change in the existing internationally accepted modus operandi of elections observations and treatment of the reports of international observers.


The year 2007 has witnessed less than encouraging results in the spread of democracy in the developing world in general and Africa in particular. Seven presidential and 17 parliamentary elections took place in Africa in the year just out. Some were for forms sake with neither power nor authority vested in the office holders. Others made sure that power was one thing they cannot part from, nor share with any other ordinary mortal. In one instance, democracy and elections were ridiculed, as in the case of the Gambia. Although he was not clear why his government had to organize elections, President Yahya Jammeh, who still receives substantial international aid, warned his countrymen in a public meeting announcing his decision that “constituencies that voted the opposition should not expect my government’s development projects. I want to teach people that opposition in Africa does not pay.” Certainly, he is not alone in this thinking.

Let there be no mistake, the change of guards from incumbents to newly elected individuals by itself is no measure of freedom and democracy. In the case of Africa, the past has not justified such conclusion or optimism. If it is a new trend, the case for that can only be made when the three presidents (Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) who took the reins of power in 2007 fulfil their pledges to restore honour to their nations, ensure democracy and economic growth. They represent three countries with enormous possibilities and serious handicaps. Africa and the world are watching them if ever these powerful men could muster the means to honour their pledges to stamp out corruption, improve governance and usher in an era of economic and social justice.

With respect to the 2007 parliamentary elections, the results reflect no tremors or changes across the region in terms of policies or dynamism, save in Kenya. In the elections at the end of December, the opposition in Kenya has taken control of the majority seats in parliament. In spite of the unsure fate of the presidency, Kenya still has greater likelihood to be on a clear democratic path. They can hold government accountable to parliament and the electorate, at least, in a more forceful way than the majority of African countries that have deprived Africa of confidence and the vibrancy of multi-party democracy by castrating political opposition. In rejecting recently Tabo Embeki’s bid for another term as leader of the ANC, the Congress may have laid the ground for fresh developments in South African politics and democracy. Nonetheless, its direction and evolution would remain an open question until after the outcome of the corruption trial of Jacob Zuma and the general elections in 2009.

In spite of the many elections held in Sub-Saharan Africa, the fact remains that democracy’s touch has been feeble, with hardly any hold in terms of the representativeness and the aspirations of the electorate. Even in countries where citizens have strongly disapproved of incumbents in all sorts of manners with risks to their lives, power has remained in the same hands. The massive turnouts to make a difference through the ballot boxes have only yielded more trouble. The international community’s disapproval and its rebuke of the democratic deficits in many countries have also had little effect with international aid continuing to flow unabated.

In that sense, one would be forgiven to think that elections in Africa are wasteful masquerades that foster deep frustrations and polarizations within society. Tyrannical regimes and the compliant international community have rendered them mere rituals, hardly moments of popular empowerment. Violence follows elections because by nature human beings resent being cheated. In the views of many, despite the presence of elections monitors, they have become occasions for powerful men to renew their operating licenses, instead of manifestations of popular will. Death and havoc follow elections in countries where there is no recourse to the courts of law, or there is little confidence in the justice system.

Although an eager partner in monitoring elections, the international community has scarcely done better than becoming accomplice to those who steal elections. When election observers leave, all their recommendations and conclusions—including that the elections ‘do not meet international standards’—become ineffectual pronouncements and forgotten in no time. Before the ink on the reports and recommendations of observers dry, many governments rush to shoring up and doing business with those who regularly undermine the popular will in Africa. If only the international community had been firm in rejecting past fraudulent elections that ended up with needless bloodsheds and profound societal polarizations, today the tragedy in Kenya could have been avoided.

If the situation in Kenya is not resolved to the satisfaction of the electorate, business as usual would only encourage not only instability in that country, but also many more election riggings in other countries in the region. I dread its cumulative effect; it would undermine regional peace and stability, affect economic growth and international trade and commerce and the much-needed respect for basic fundamental human rights.


In view of democracy’s failure in many parts of the world, there is now pressing need for better and more effective approach by governments, regional and international organizations and civic groups in election monitoring and in ensuring respect of the rights of the electorate. Recall how the international community succeeded in diminishing coups that were all too common in the past several decades.

In Africa, coups have significantly died down, with no successful attempts having taken place in recent years. Compare this with the past record. Between 1956 and 2001, there were 80 successful coups, 108 failed coup attempts, and 139 reported coup plots, according to research by Patrick McGowan, a professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe. South Africa’s membership in the OAU, the regional organization, has had huge influence in this regard. At the 1997 OAU Summit in Harare, African governments adopted a resolution condemning coups d’états, presumably at the initiative of South Africa. In giving practical application to that decision, the 1999 OAU Summit in Algiers barred at its next summit in Lomé in 2000 those whose governments had been deposed since 1997 and who had not held credible elections. Ever since, these regional mechanisms, supported by the international community, have served Africa well, if not in ensuring credible elections, at least, by restraining ambitious members of the armed forces.

The evidence suggests that regional and international cooperation could deliver much better results in ensuring respect to the voice of the electorate than the mere monitoring of elections or withholding of aid by one or some conscientious governments when things go wrong. This is not to belittle the importance of election monitoring. I know it from the experience of my country that the presence of foreign election observers has helped in opening up space for public participation. However, in its current form, its contributions are far too limited and ineffective, as partner governments have no incentives to follow up recommendations of elections observers.

One way of improving future election results is to make sure that, once election observers have determined that the elections are farce in any country, the international community must desist from aiding and abetting one side or the other. In fact, it should withhold formal recognition and aid until the domestic legal processes have taken their course or mediations have satisfactorily resolved the problems. Only when the domestic processes fail, the international community should seek ways of exerting pressure on the contestants. This is in the interest of justice and stability for the people and country concerned and the international community as well.

In this age of globalization, where capital, information and goods cross international borders unhindered, fostering, implementing and upholding a set of defined, functioning and commonly shared values and principles of democracy and respect for human rights differently than before would is in everyone’s interest. It would help promote greater understanding regionally and globally. It would also serve the interests of peace, economic development and in combating terrorism. Those who are helpless and feel that violence is their recourse in the morning after elections may be encouraged to turn to the courts. In stable condition, trade and commerce would continue uninterrupted and unhindered. Today’s tragedy that is diminishing Kenya would have become unthinkable.

Certainly, such a decision would bear fruit only when and if the big powers agree, say for instance, at the next G-8 summit or other appropriate forums to reach a common understanding in this regard. In the meantime, those countries should restrain from promoting their own political, security, economic and strategic interests at the expense of poor countries, as they do so by failing to undock their interests, at least temporarily, from the subject country and its failed internal processes.

Similarly, the African Union must admit that its election monitoring is in need of revamping. Many have chided its proclivity to defending status quo at any cost, irrespective of whether the interests of the electorate and democracy are reflected honestly. The AU should see to it that the spirit of the 1999 OAU decisions are taken seriously, updated and implemented fully. Strong action in this direction would help both the member states and the AU in preventing future conflicts, to which the Union is likely to be called upon to take greater responsibilities in future in monitoring ceasefire, keeping the peace or protecting victims of armed militias.

Finally, some thought should be given to the mechanisms by which individuals are selected to be leaders and members of election observation teams. I do not intend to mention particular instances; but there is need to ensure that especially the leaders of such processes are free of their national interests or pressures from others.

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