The recent presidential election in Kenya has declined into a bloodbath with the deaths of more than 300 people, jeopardizing the nation and the stability and democracy in East Africa as a whole. Both the government and the opposition must authorize and support an independently directed recount of votes and begin a process of national reconciliation.
The election, the most competitive in the country's history, began peacefully on Dec. 27. The Commonwealth Observer Group commended the Election Commission of Kenya for its professionalism. Early returns on Dec. 29 gave opposition leader Raila Odinga a lead of nearly a million votes. Vote counting was stopped by the election commission that day with 189 of 210 constituencies reporting. On Dec. 30, the election commission announced that in a mysterious overnight switch incumbent Mwai Kibaki had won by 231,728 votes.
European Union observers have condemned the delay in releasing the final presidential result. In addition they have noted that there were irregularities in ballot numbers, and that the presidential election results are not credible. Further, at least four election commissioners have since come forth and asked for a full investigation into vote tampering. There is credible evidence that the elections were rigged.
The current electoral violence in Kenya has historical roots. Kibaki was elected on a multiparty, multiethnic democratic ticket in 2002 promising to “sweep away” corruption and one-party rule. He presided over a renewal of the once moribund economy: Kenya grew 6.1 percent in 2006. Under Kibaki, the press became freer, and civil society flourished. Bill Clinton praised Kibaki for introducing free primary education throughout the country.
Yet, Kibaki reneged early in his administration on a memorandum of understanding with the Liberal Democratic Party regarding governmental power sharing. Although the Kenyan economy grew at a rapid pace, so did economic inequality, resulting in a concentration of wealth in a small oligarchical elite, while most Kenyans earn less than $1 a day.
Senior members of Kibaki's government resigned under a cloud of corruption and his anticorruption czar went into exile in fear for his life. In a sharp turnaround from his 2002 entry as a democratic reformer, Kibaki has behaved like an autocrat in the days after the election, muzzling live broadcasts by the private media, banning opposition protests, and allowing the police to fire live ammunition upon unarmed civilians.
For the sake of the nation and the region, Kenya must move forward to a peaceful democratic transition. Kibaki should immediately unmuzzle the press, and allow the opposition to assemble peacefully in public. Church leaders, civil society, and international observers must urge the police to stop firing on innocent civilians. As urged by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, an independent recount of contested ballots is required. The African Union, the United Nations, and the Commonwealth Group should rapidly assist in convening an independent body of Kenyans from all backgrounds to conduct the recount.
African figures with unassailable democratic credentials, such as Desmond Tutu of South Africa and John Kufuor of Ghana should work with all Kenyan political parties to form an interim unity government that can rule in a transition period. Crucially, Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, and other Kenyan leaders must help lower temperatures by tempering inflammatory rhetoric, participating in good faith in negotiations, and urging those who claim to be supporters of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement to halt politically motivated violence. Finally, credible new elections for the position of president must be scheduled in the next six months.
The violence we are seeing in Kenya is not ethnic or tribal; it is political and has deep roots in social and economic inequities that have deepened continuously since independence. For hundreds of years, 42 ethnic and linguistic groups have lived peacefully together in Kenya, with high rates of intermarriage, trade, and in-migration. This violence obscures deep social inequities in economic distribution that cross ethnic lines among all groups.
For 40 years, Kenya has been as a haven for refugees and a broker for peace settlements, avoiding the type of wrenching violence that has torn neighbors Sudan, Rwanda, and Somalia apart while earning a reputation as the most democratic nation in the region. Without immediate efforts toward national reconciliation, and a recount of disputed ballots, Kenya risks descent into autocracy and civil war.
Warigia Bowman is graduate student associate at the Weatherhead Center and a doctoral candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.