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Kenya's Lost Opportunity For Fairer Elections

By Gregory Simpkins / January 29, 1997



By the end of 1997, Kenya must hold presidential and legislative elections. The last general elections, in December 1992, were judged by the international community to be acceptable, though the electoral environment was seen as tilted in favor of the ruling party.

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Kenya's government continues to be criticized for failing to correct flaws in the electoral process, but the critics - notably donor nations that provide aid to Kenya - must accept at least some of the blame for losing an opportunity to correct this situation.

Certainly most of Kenya's leadership wants to win at all costs and has strenuously opposed any change in current laws and procedures. Still, elements within the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) feel able to compete successfully with a divided opposition.

The strong performance of a Kenyan government delegation at an international conference on African democracy in Mombasa in early 1995 corroborated that view. Following that conference, party leaders who favor a move toward more competitive politics arranged for KANU and government representatives to sit down with opposition parties to discuss changes in the election process.

Although suspicious of the government's commitment, opposition party leaders lined up behind this election reform dialogue, as did several leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Kenya Election Commission quietly backed the process, believing it to be the only way reform could be achieved. Britain also lent its support and agreed to provide partial funding. The British, though, hinged their backing on the Americans taking the lead.

Initially, the US supported the election reform process. Kenya has been a key American ally on humanitarian and political matters in the Horn of Africa and in such international operations as Desert Storm. Maintaining stability in Kenya is a vital US interest.

At the donor meeting in Paris last spring, Kenyans were credited with positive economic change, but the political process was judged to be desperately in need of reform before the next general elections. A fall 1995 US Agency for International Development (USAID) assessment confirmed that Kenyans gave electoral reform high priority. The electoral dialogue process was made a priority for 1996 USAID support, but, unfortunately, a confluence of events short-circuited that almost universally supported process.

First, the US Congress and the Clinton administration could not agree on a budget, and the American government was shut down for the longest period in US history. Even after government operations were resumed, the level of funding for such areas as foreign aid was far less than had been anticipated. The State Department and USAID, unprepared for the sudden shortfall, were unable to decide in a timely fashion how scarce funding would be apportioned. USAID Kenya funding was uncertain until late spring.

Second, the US undertook twin efforts to give field staff more control over spending and to provide direct foreign democracy funds to indigenous organizations. This resulted in a largely untested Kenyan NGO being entrusted with carrying out foreign policy imperatives of not only the US government, but also the rest of the donor community. In more than six months, no significant progress toward reform has been made.

Third, the Kenyan government turned toward public opposition to electoral reform. Joint opposition party rallies were denied licenses or broken up. Repressive political party legislation that had been withdrawn was reintroduced.

Yet the government produced a letter for donors signed by Kenyan Minister of Education Joseph Kamotho, the secretary-general of KANU, pledging KANU/government support for a deliberative process on electoral reform. That letter was produced at great political risk to Mr. Kamotho, who was under fire for party losses in by-elections last year. The US government and other donors, however, declined to renew their support for the process.

Absent any changes in the election process in Kenya, 1997's elections will be no better regarded than past ones. The US and other donor nations will again complain that the election environment is unfair. The criticism may be correct, but, sadly, it will ignore the wasted opportunity for change last year. Time remains for a positive intervention, but it is quickly running out.

* Gregory Simpkins is a senior associate at the Institute for Democratic Strategies in Alexandria, Va.