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Dying for Democracy

February 25, 2008 –Amid rampant violence that flared up following a Dec. 27 presidential election, Kenya is in crisis. Many in the Eastern African nation believe the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki of the Kenya African National Union party, stole his seat after ballot irregularities returned him to power over rival Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement. In a country where colonialism gave way to one-party politics until 1992, Kenya is no stranger to election violence, says Lahra Smith, assistant professor of foreign service. However, deeper issues, including an outdated constitution, land reform, weak courts, corruption and police brutality, all play a role in the recent turmoil.

Q: Did the post-election violence take people by surprise?
A. It's not that it has never happened before in Kenya, but we've never seen these kinds of numbers in such a short time. The numbers between 1992 and 1998 are 3,000 dead in election-related violence. Now, we've got 1,000 dead in a month.

Similarly, you had at least 300,000 to 400,000 people forced out of their homes -- those we refer to as internally displaced persons -- during those two elections. We've got the same number now in a month's time. People should not die because of voting, and they should not lose their homes or be displaced.

Q: Why do people suspect this election was stolen?
A. It looks as though the electoral commission yielded to power in the counting phase. The election itself was generally considered free and fair. People were allowed to campaign and weren't generally coerced. This happened 15 years ago, and it's important that it didn't this time.

But counting is when it all falls apart. There are some large anomalies in numbers, not just in random places, but in places where President Kibaki won overwhelmingly in statistically impossible ways.

Q: I saw turnout was 115 percent in one district.
A.Yes, and the other way experts can gauge this is because Kenyans always vote for three elections -- local, parliamentary and presidential. Statistically, the number of ballots for those three should be within one percent. In some places, it was much, much higher.

Q: How did the push to revise Kenya's constitution play into this election?
A. Kenya's constitution is still very much a relic of colonialism. Everyone agrees they want to revise it, but they don't agree on how. The fundamental issues politically are of power-sharing. The presidency is an all-powerful package. When the parliament and the courts are so weak, that is not satisfactory to people.

The biggest issues for Kenyans, right now, are corruption charges. Kibaki promised to rout out official corruption. Not only has he not changed the old ways, several times he's blocked efforts to do so.

Q: What are some other concerns among Kenyans?
A. Land is one of the big issues, resulting in rural violence. It's about land ownership that dates back to colonialism. Kenya was a settler colony, where the British came and took over the best land. They displaced people from their land, and those people, in turn, displaced other people. That cycle of displacement is a very recent history that people aren't going to forget about. Kenya, as a society, has been completely unable to set up a commission to resolve these land claims or for families to get a fair hearing.

Q: So, that is triggering some of the post-election violence?
A. Kenyans are very dissatisfied with the level of progress in the country, and they're so frustrated because they don't think their institutions are going to resolve their claims, and this is why they resort to violence.

If people believe they can go to court and get resolution, why would they ever choose violence? They won't, and Kenyans are no exception to that. So, you have to ask, why would they turn against their neighbors in rage? It's because they don't believe their institutions will bring them justice.

Q: What about the violence in urban areas?
A. Growth under Kibaki has been high, about six percent. The problem is the average Kenyan hasn't seen one penny of it. There are high levels of literacy and high volumes of media coverage. So, people know the economy is growing, but they're jobless. They get angry. These are questions of job creation and Kenya's place in the global economy.

We've also seen excessive use of force by the police. It certainly doesn't surprise us, but it is disappointing that police have such low levels of professionalism. In rural communities, police were absent when violence occurred and showed up too late to protect people.

In urban areas, they cordoned off slums where violence was going on and let communities fight it out. In one instance, a police officer was caught on tape killing an unarmed protester who was going in the opposite direction. He's now been charged and that's almost unheard of in Kenya.

Q: What is the status of the presidency now?
A. Both sides are talking, and that's why the violence has generally subsided. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N., is there. And although negotiations seem to be extremely tense, Kibaki and Odinga have met face-to-face. It was probably symbolic because in terms of substance, they have their mediators talking.
The question under discussion seems to be about a rerun for office, ‘Should we have it?' and ‘When should it happen?' It probably won't happen for at least a year. It's hard to imagine that Orange Democratic Movement supporters would be happy with anything less.

Q: So, what happens in the interim?
A. It's a question of how much power-sharing would Kibaki be willing to concede. Will there be a national unity government? Will there be time between now and a rerun election to look at the constitution? Kenyans probably won't be able to revise the constitution between now and another election, but there might be a negotiation of the political institutions, especially the presidency.

Q: What is the nature of the United States' negotiations in Kenya?
A. There have been hearings in Congress and our ambassador and missions have been working closely with the international community. I don't think at this point the United State will impose any kind of sanctions or halt international aid, and I agree with that. I would say that Condoleezza Rice's trip to Kenya on Feb. 18 is a clear and positive sign that the U.S. wants to be part of assisting Kenya's reconciliation process.

Q: What do you want to see happen in Kenya?
A. I'd love to see a revised constitution with some more robust institutional checks and balances. And I would like to see a specific reconciliation commission, especially around issues of land, but also around other issues of marginalization and inequality. Certain communities are saying, ‘We've never had a chance in participating meaningfully, and we want a chance.'

Many consider this to be Kenya's moment, and I hope they take advantage of it.

Editor’s note: Smith notes that several Georgetown groups are actively engaged in Kenyan projects. The Center for Social Justice and the Office of the Mission and Ministry are co-sponsoring a trip to the country this summer. The Magis trip, named after the Jesuit ideal of "more," allows participants to learn about social justice and faith in developing countries.

The Student Movement for Real Change currently is fund raising for water development activities in Kenya, and students involved with STAND and the African Society have broached Kenya-related issues with their membership.

"This has been heart-warming and exciting to see the interest in Kenya at Georgetown," Smith says.

-- By Lauren Burgoon, Blue & Gray Assistant Editor

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