Monday, March 4, 2013

Some Thoughts on Kenya's Election

I find it interesting that the Nation, and presumably other Kenyan news sources, is reporting presidential vote tallies as they come in.  Presumably, this is designed to keep the process as transparent as possible, to avoid the sense that results are somehow being massaged being the scenes, and to preserve the IEBC’s credibility.  In 2007, the integrity of Kenya’s voting monitoring agency was called into serious doubt, and the loss of legitimacy that accompanied that doubt exacerbated the uncertainty which plagued that election. 

On the other hand—as we learned in November from Karl Rove’s now-infamous meltdown and efforts to sow doubt in the minds of FOX News viewers—statistics without context can create a false impression about the significance of those numbers in the minds of readers/viewers. 

I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed by the Nation’s coverage after the slick NTV debate a couple of weeks ago.  I’m following things from my office hours in FSM Cafe in Berkeley, and so can’t watch live news lest I annoy my neighbours, so perhaps there is other coverage which is better.

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I’ve been watching Hillary Ng’weno’s film series on Kenya’s 2007 election, Kenya’s Darkest Hour, in pieces over the last week.  Ng’weno got his start as a reporter for the Nation in the years after independence, and is now one of Kenya’s preeminent media figures, both in the limelight and behind the scenes, a kind of insider’s insider.  The film doesn’t take a very historical view, preferring to see the origins of the controlled violence which characterised the 2007 elections in the splintering of coalitions which accompanied the referendum on a 2005 constitution. 

And without wanting to downplay the violence which occurred in 2007, Ng’weno is engaging in the same type of hyperbole that characterises western media portrayal of Kenya: that the country is a tinderbox, which it is constantly on the brink of spasmodic, inexplicable violence, etc.  I’m not sure that 2007 marks the “darkest hour” of a country which suffered nearly seventy years of colonialism including a brutal war which saw the erection of a concentration camps and the systematisation of torture regimes, over thirty years of dictatorship accompanied by disappearances, political killings, mass imprisonment, and torture. 

This rather blinkered view of the country’s present stems from the rose-tinted spectacles through which the U.S. and Britain viewed Kenya for much of the second half of the twentieth century.  They praised economic growth in Kenya without noticing that its fruits were funnelled through a spoils system.  Kenyatta and Moi might have been dictators, but they were “our” dictators.  There might have been vagaries in procurement and trade policy in Kenya, but they were vagaries from which the British weapons industry was happy to profit. 

Nonetheless, Ng’weno’s two-DVD series makes interesting viewing, and is worth watching if you can get your hands on it.

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The focus on Kenya’s election—here and there—has been in some respects much more about the process and structure of the event itself than about the policy ramifications of a given outcome.  The Standard here details some of the procedural difficulties that are emerging as voting continues.  In theory, polls should have closed.  However, the IEBC has kept them open to accommodate all those who have been waiting for hours in line.

Lest we think this is a problem unique to a country like Kenya, we should cast our minds back to the 2012 election here in the United States, when people were forced to wait for hours to cast a vote.  We could use a little more focus on the mechanics of our own voting, given our reliance on a comparatively convoluted and backwards system.  That our voting takes place on a week-day when most people have to work tells you that something is wrong with the system.  Most countries vote on a week-end, and many make election day a holiday

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I’m a little sorry that I’m stuck following Kenya’s election from the other side of the world.  In 2010, I had a front-row seat in Nairobi as the country voted on overhauling its constitution.  On Election Day, I found myself in the Acacia Medical Centre on Kenyatta Avenue, and the first thing the attendant nurse did was check my finger for the black ink that signifies that a Kenyan has done his or her civic duty, and admonish me for not having yet voted! 

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Last week I was reading a compilation of interviews with Kenyans in the aftermath of the violence in 2007/8.  Many of those interviewed were forced out of their homes, had their livelihoods destroyed, and suffered physical violence.  And yet I was struck by their capacity to forgive and their readiness to move on.  Most of them also recounted how they were protected and supported by at least some of their neighbours, including those from different tribes who, in the narrative often presented in U.S. media, should have been their “enemies”. 

Most of those interviewed recognised that the violence was not foreordained, but was engineered by political interests.  I suspect that those interests are looking over their shoulders during this election, and will be a bit more cautious given the extent to which much of Kenya’s civil society has devoted itself to seeing that this election is a peaceful one. 

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