In the aftermath of Kenya’s worst ethnic violence in 15 years, Nairobi’s man in Washington insists the bloodletting is an anomaly that will quickly be forgotten as his country gets its political and economic house back in order.
As of press time, some 700 people had died and more than 250,000—including an estimated 100,000 children, according to the United Nations—had been left homeless throughout Kenya in the wake of Dec. 27 elections, which pitted President Mwai Kibaki, 76, of the Kikuyu tribe, against opposition leader Raila Odinga, 63, of the Luo tribe.
Protests by Luo, Kalenjin and other groups exploded into violence following the government’s hasty declaration of Kibaki as the winner in elections despite early returns showing a large lead for Odinga and his party, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections that same day. International observers widely described the vote as flawed and rife with irregularities—so much so that it’s impossible to confirm who actually won the presidential election.
Kenyan Ambassador Peter N.R.O. Ogego says the election-related atrocities left him and his embassy staff in “shock.”
“This never happened before. The elections were very hotly contested, and the expectations on both sides were very high. We had a lot of people vying for various political offices, and that heightened the stakes more than ever before,” he told The Washington Diplomat.
“The institutions of democracy should have had the capacity to sustain the volume of excitement generated by the campaign frenzy. Everybody wanted to jump in and participate. On the presidential level, we had eight candidates, but the institutions of democracy were not strong enough to sustain that fervor. We never expected them to give in to this pressure.”
The world also never expected that Kenya—once viewed as a bedrock of economic and political stability in East Africa—could devolve so quickly into chaos. Since the election, the country has been virtually split down the middle, as both sides have blamed the other for the ensuing violence, with Kibaki supporters pointing to the opposition’s machete-wielding mobs—which have gone on house-burning rampages and chased off tens of thousands of people, mostly Kikuyus—while Odinga supporters accuse government security forces of acting on “shoot to kill” orders against demonstrators. And despite worldwide pleas for dialogue and reconciliation, neither side seems to be budging, as Odinga calls for continued boycotts, while Kibaki maintains that the election was fair and that there will be no re-vote.
This was hardly the scenario that international observers pictured when optimistic Kenyans initially went to the ballots. Indeed, hopes were high that voting would go as smoothly as it had in previous elections following the end of one-party rule in 2002, when the autocratic regime of Daniel arap Moi was democratically ousted by Kibaki, after which Kenya was touted as one of the most promising success stories in the turbulent Horn region (also see Jan. 10, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
Ogego, 50, was 5 years old when Kenya declared independence from Great Britain in 1963. The British colonial rulers who had kept the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo and other tribes divided also left handpicked successors in place, and when Jomo Kenyatta—independent Kenya’s first president—came to power, he naturally favored members of his own Kikuyu tribe.
Today, the Kikuyus are Kenya’s largest and most powerful ethnic group, accounting for 22 percent of Kenya’s 37 million inhabitants. Together with the Luo and the Kalenjin, these three tribes have dominated political life since independence. Yet the recent violence has clearly spread along ethnic lines, mainly because Kenyans usually vote in tribal blocs. The Luo and other tribes have long accused the Kikuyus of oppressing them, economically and politically, but the ambassador denies that tribalism influences the government and blasts those whom he says are using the “ethnic card” to play on peoples’ emotions.
“We are 42 ethnic communities, so if a politician says my community is being marginalized by others, that’s manipulation,” Ogego charges. “It cannot be true, because communities don’t run governments. And we have a history of manipulation, not just in Kenya or in Africa but all over the world. Yet the social fabric of Kenya—although it’s now being tested—is solid enough to ward off any manipulation by politicians.”
He adds: “Most Kenyans have intermarried across ethnic lines, so you will not have extremely pure ethnic groups anymore. Any politician playing the ethnic card won’t go far. The tragedy that ensued after the election ensures this.”
The ambassador, a private consultant who represented his country in Canada and Cuba before coming to Washington, admits “Kenya’s stability and economic accomplishments over the last five years are facing a very serious test, but we think we will pull through this and regain our shattered image.”
Ogego laughed off suggestions by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S. government-funded group that sent observers to Kenya, that exit polls indicated a clear win for opposition leader Odinga. Maina Kiai, chairman of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, told a Washington forum via a video link from Nairobi in early January that there had been “an orchestrated, well-planned approach to make sure the election process went one way.”
Kiai, who suggested that it’s not possible to say with certainty who won the election, called for “an internationally supervised forensic audit” of the vote to determine whether a recount could be conducted, or whether a new round of voting is needed.
Ogego discounted the idea of a recount but wouldn’t produce official results or numbers when prodded by The Diplomat. “I have heard reports of flaws and irregularities in the elections process, but I never had anybody say categorically that the opposition won—other than the opposition,” he argues, noting that if, in fact, the IRI can show that Odinga was the winner, “let them go to court and table their findings if they have evidence, rather than peddle them as rumors.”
Ogego—who doesn’t generally give interviews—thinks Kenya has been misrepresented in the international media.
“For some, it was like the African question is complete, and that the remaining front of stability has finally joined the circle. You see a lot of that Afro-pessimism in the media,” he says, accusing some media outlets of “using old photos and footage that are not related to the current story. They have not shown life going back to normal in Nairobi.”
Pressed on the issue, Ogego declined to identify which media outlets were engaged in such practices. But he did level criticism against those now portraying Kenya as a basket case.
“Don’t have this impression that the whole country is a wreck. There are only pockets of unrest,” he says. “Even before the elections, there were some flashpoints where politicians have always used ethnic divisions to bring disunity among the people. The displacement of these 250,000 people is concentrated in those few parts of the country.”
Ogego reacted with irritation when shown an article in the online version of London’s Mail & Guardian that quoted John Michuki—Kenya’s minister of roads and public works and a hard-line member of Kibaki’s new cabinet—as saying that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would not be welcome if he came to Nairobi to mediate an end to the crisis that continues to grip Kenya.
“A minister can be misquoted,” Ogego replied, dismissing the article as propaganda. “We welcome Kofi Annan, who comes in his capacity as an eminent African leader. I have a circular on my desk which has been issued to that purpose, saying that contrary to misinformation in the media, we will welcome anyone who feels he can help in the healing process.”
Indeed, Annan helped to arrange the first contact that Kibaki and Odinga had with one another since the election, although both sides only seemed to further dig in their heels following the brief, fruitless meeting.
Other leaders who have sought to bring an end to Kenya’s unrest include South African activist Desmond Tutu; Benjamin Mkapa, former president of Tanzania; Graca Machel-Mandela, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela; and John Kufuor, president of Ghana and current chairman of the African Union.
“We think we will pull through this, based on the Kenyan people themselves. They will see that the electioneering process was not based on issues, but on ethnicity. Politicians manipulated these ethnic differences to get votes based on ethnic blocs, which is not sustainable,” the ambassador says. “The ethnic agenda cannot succeed, because the majority of Kenyans are not tribal. I think Kenya will rise above this.”
Asked about those who committed atrocities—such as the burning of a church in which 17 people had taken refuge during post-election violence—Ogego vows “they will face justice. Some people have been arrested and they will go to court. Some of them might even be taken to the International Court of Justice.”
Before the current crisis broke out, the Economist magazine was predicting 5.6 percent economic growth for Kenya in 2008. With investors taking a wait-and-see attitude, that clearly won’t happen now. By some estimates, the country has lost about million each day that protests have shut down businesses and transportation networks.
But Ogego insists that Kenya’s largest foreign-exchange earners—tea, coffee, cut flowers and tourism—are unlikely to suffer in the long term. “This has definitely caused a dent in our economy, but other than the immediate shock, Kenya’s coffee and tea industries should be able to recover. Both of them are doing very well. The cut-flower market is growing, and with regard to tourism, our figures still look pretty good. We have been processing visas of Americans traveling to Kenya, and no flights have been cancelled.”
In fact, according to the ambassador, the United States has now become the number-two market for tourists after Britain; last year Kenya received 88,000 Americans, mostly tourists on safari.
Ogego also noted that in June, Delta Air Lines will launch nonstop flights from Atlanta and New York to Nairobi—marking the first direct flights to Kenya from the United States since the days of Pan Am.
The ambassador, who regretted that The Diplomat didn’t interview him before Kenya’s crisis rather than after, says, “I’ve accomplished what I came here to accomplish, which was to streamline the operations of this mission and bring them up to par with modern standards, and also to bring understanding between Kenya and the United States.”
Yet the two countries aren’t exactly bosom buddies right now, especially given the recent statement by Jendayi Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, that it cannot be “business as usual” between Washington and Nairobi as long as the post-election stalemate persists. In fact, 14 of Kenya’s leading donors, including the United States—which contributes more than 0 million in aid to Kenya each year—issued a statement in mid-January warning the Kenyan government that they were reviewing foreign assistance in light of the crisis.
Michael Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, told Nairobi’s Nation newspaper in a Jan. 16 interview that although the voting itself was “a model of the democratic process,” there were clearly problems in the vote-tallying process “that raise issues” about transparency and accountability.
“During the last five years, Kenya has been held up as a model of democracy not just in the region but in the whole developing world. That partnership is based on shared democratic values,” Ranneberger told the newspaper.
“We have said that the vote tallying cast a cloud that the election was not transparent and that raised issues of credibility. We have indicated that there needs to be a political solution. Each side got about half the vote of the Kenyan people. The election was very close, irrespective of the outcome. The will of the Kenyan people needs to be reflected. We have indicated that in that kind of environment, where the country is going through a crisis, you cannot conduct business as usual.”
In the meantime, Ogego says he’s been spending his time “engaging broadly with State Department officials, the Kenyan leadership and institutions that do business with Kenya,” though he declined to elaborate. He has also been “engaged with Kenyans in the Diaspora, including close to 1 million Kenyans in the United States.” Every year, some billion in private investment, tourism proceeds, official assistance and family remittances flow from the United States to Kenya.
“Up until the flare up with the elections, we were able to balance our budget,” Ogego says. “We had just come out of a closed political system only five years before. We had a lot of political and social reform programs, including the opening up of political space, whose victim we have now become.”
As for what happens next, Ogego told The Diplomat that “nobody has an answer, other than that our institutions kind of let us down in our hour of need.”
In the long term, he says, “We think there will be more focus on electoral law, strengthening the institutions that deal with elections. Parliament will have to become more active. Some of the laws in our constitution may have to be reviewed.”
In an effort to put a positive spin on things, Ogego even suggested there could be a silver lining to the horrendous events back home.
“We have long-standing bilateral relations with the United States. We don’t have any contentious issues,” he says. “The current crisis in Kenya should not be more than a mere glitch in our relationship. In fact, it could even bring us closer, with more collaboration and discussions as old friends, [because] when you have a crisis as friends, you have more regular meetings than before.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.