THE human tragedies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia demonstrate the difficulties in ending violence once it has erupted. But in the beautiful African nation of Kenya the international community still has an opportunity to prevent conflict if it acts with resolve and speed.
If such a conflict breaks out in Kenya, it will result not from ethnic tensions as is commonly believed, but rather from a deliberate effort by President Daniel arap Moi to steal an election. Pressured last December by a multinational donor group to restore multiparty democracy, President Moi has personally directed a perverse strategy to undermine any prospect that his opposition could defeat him.
He has stubbornly refused to allay the fears of many of his own citizens that he intends to commit massive electoral fraud to maintain political power. Not since the final months of Ferdinand Marcos's regime in the Philippines has a national crisis over an election seemed so predictable.
The group of donor nations led by Canada, Germany, and the United States has tried to keep the pressure on for electoral safeguards. Badly needed economic aid is being withheld by these governments while entreaties are made to set an election date, restructure the Moi-appointed Electoral Commission, permit domestic groups to monitor the voting, allow adequate numbers of international observers, and introduce more openness and fairness into the election ground rules.
They have not succeeded. Human rights abuses have increased, opposition rallies have been hampered, opposition political leaders have been jailed and harassed, and violent episodes designed to incite ethnic conflict have been traced directly to Kenya's official security and police services.
Meanwhile, no election date has been set. (It is likely to be announced with little warning, allowing only a brief campaign period.) The Electoral Commission remains a bastion of Moi cronies unwilling even to make a gesture toward earning the trust of the electorate, let alone the opposition.
No domestic monitoring group has yet been accredited. Election-law changes seem designed only to complicate the process, making it more difficult to unseat the president while failing to meet any reasonable standard for multiparty competition.
AN ambivalent British policy carried out by a resident High Commissioner, who has been openly critical of the pressure being applied by other donor nations, has helped reinforce Moi's belief that he can escape an international test of his cynical strategy.
London apparently has convinced Moi to permit small teams of observers from the Commonwealth and the European Community (currently chaired by Britain). But the excessively cautious and very quiet diplomacy used to acquire these concessions inadvertently may have convinced Moi that he can co-opt the observer groups and use them to legitimize the process.
The opposition parties are themselves in disarray, weakened and divided by personal ambitions and by the government's successful penetration of their ranks. The government-controlled media attempt to embarrass them daily, and the cumulative effect is taking its toll.
The opposition parties did join together to urge a citizens boycott of the Electoral Commission's effort to register voters. Receiving little international support for this, they soon reversed themselves and concentrated their effort on keeping the registration process honest. In this, they appear to have been unsuccessful.
Millions of potential voters were disenfranchised because they were not issued the requisite national identification cards. The list, containing 7.9 million names (out of approximately 12 million eligible voters), is believed to be rife with duplications, underage Kenyans, and phony names. Only in presumed ruling-party strongholds did officials facilitate the registration of citizens.
An election can be an effective conflict-resolution device in a deeply polarized society such as Kenya. If the election goes well, legitimate government, reconciliation, and peaceful democratic transition can emerge from the process, regardless of the winner. If the people feel cheated, however, conflict is all but inevitable.
Donor nations have succeeded in persuading Moi to accept multiparty elections, but that is only half the battle. If the international community now wishes to avoid complicity in a perverse attempt to steal an election, it must end its incremental efforts to influence the process on the margins.
The international community, including the new African democracies, should inform the Kenyan government that the only election process that will be recognized as legitimate is one that is negotiated and agreed to by all the competing parties. And the only election outcome that will be considered credible will be one determined to be free and fair by international observers and, even more important, by the people of Kenya.
If these steps are not taken, costly peacekeeping measures may be required to end a Kenyan conflict that will have been the creation of a single man unwilling to subject his rule to the will of his own people.