January 2, 2008
Kenya's marred presidential vote and the violence that has spiraled from it are threatening an island of stability in the otherwise volatile horn of Africa, as well as endangering U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.
At least 260 people have been killed so far in fighting that broke out after election officials over the weekend said sitting President Mwai Kibaki won last week's presidential election and international observers criticized voting irregularities.
Opposition candidate Raila Odinga had gone into the voting on Thursday ahead in most polls. That had raised expectations among his supporters and many outsider observers that Kenya was poised for a mostly peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another.
Those hopes collapsed after election officials named Mr. Kibaki the victor on Sunday, following delays announcing the final results. He was hastily sworn in, triggering violent protests from Mr. Odinga's supporters.
Those protests have since disintegrated into pitched battles and tribal fighting. A mob torched a church sheltering hundreds of Kenyans fleeing election violence Tuesday, killing up to 50. Mobs have torched cars and burned homes. Much of the violence has flared in Kisumu in the West, as well as in cities along the Indian Ocean, where Mr. Odinga is most popular.
Slums in Nairobi, the capital city, also have erupted. The slum of Kibera, home to one million people, has been cordoned off by police, who were out in force Tuesday, clad in riot gear. The police presence has helped calm the violence, but the mood remained tense. Food is scarce in some areas because many shops have closed to avoid looting.
The election has been a disappointment for Africa watchers, who had hoped the country's fledgling democracy and buoyant economy could serve as an example for other countries on the continent. The current crisis also has significant repercussions for the U.S., its Western allies and their strategic interests in the region.
Mr. Kibaki has been a strong supporter of American counterterrorism efforts in the region. His government has received substantial antiterrorism training and funding from the U.S. Mr. Odinga, in efforts to distance himself from the incumbent and appeal to Kenya's sizable Muslim population, appeared to be less supportive of U.S. interests going into the elections.
Kenya, meanwhile, has served as a largely neutral but influential force in some of the complex conflicts that have flared around it in East Africa. It has served as a staging ground for aid groups working in conflict zones from Sudan to Somalia. It has also served as a commercial, banking and transportation hub and a model of sorts for the kind of development the U.S. would like to see across sub-Saharan Africa.
"There's an enormous amount at stake for the U.S." in restoring order, says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The U.S. State Department initially congratulated Mr. Kibaki, though it withdrew that message of support after the U.K. and the European Union, tasked with observing the elections, voiced concerns about its legitimacy.
In a statement released Monday by the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Washington said it is "concerned by serious problems experienced during the vote-counting process." It cited unrealistically high voter-turnout rates, discrepancies in reported vote counts, apparent manipulation of some election-reporting documents, and long delays in reporting results. "It is important that the rule of law be respected," the statement continued.
Apart from his inaugural speech, in which he called for calm, Mr. Kibaki has remained largely silent. But some electoral commissioners have since called for an independent investigation into the results.
Washington's focus on fighting terrorism in Africa, and its support of governments who help, have in the past made for uncomfortable partners. The U.S. has backed Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, a strong antiterrorism ally who won a third term in a bitterly disputed election in 2005. Scores of protesters were killed in that voting. Washington raised objections after flawed polling in Nigeria in April, but it has also supported the winner, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua. Mr. Yar'Adua recently announced the capture of several people suspected of links to terrorist group al Qaeda.
This election was to mark the second democratic transition for Kenya, and the first time Kenyans had two viable choices for president. Violence was a concern, as it is during elections in developing countries world-wide. But analysts hoped that this time, ethnic politics, and the corruption that had dogged years of dictatorial rule, would be put aside.
Mr. Kibaki had swept dictator Daniel arap Moi from power in 2002, vastly improved the country's infrastructure, and introduced free primary education. Under his leadership, the economy boomed. But more recently, the charismatic Mr. Odinga tapped a vein of dissatisfaction, especially along ethnic and economic lines.
The poor have been frustrated by growing economic disparity amid the country's boom. The Muslim community was enraged by what people saw as discriminatory treatment under the president's antiterrorism policies. And many Kenyans who don't share Mr. Kibaki's ethnic roots claimed his Kikuyu tribal base has benefited disproportionately from economic growth so far.
Most observers had assumed that Kenya's lively press and highly engaged population would ensure that both candidates respected the democratic process. But some human-rights activists said Mr. Kibaki's government had begun a slow clampdown on political and press freedom in recent years. In 2005, Mr. Kibaki proposed an amendment to the constitution that allocated more power to the head of state, but voters rejected the amendment in a movement led by Mr. Odinga.
"Since then, I could see a hardening of rhetoric and action within the political leadership," said Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a respected watchdog group, adding: "So, this was foreseeable, in that sense."
Mr. Odinga has planned a rally in a downtown Nairobi park tomorrow, at which supporters are encouraged to wear black armbands. Although he has called for peace, the gathering could easily boil over into further violence. Mr. Odinga has said that any negotiations for a satisfactory settlement of the crisis would have to start with government recognition that he is the legitimate president, not Mr. Kibaki.
The Wall Street Journal
--John D. McKinnon contributed to this article.