About 10 years ago, I was preparing to move with my family to Nairobi from the United States just as Kenya was well into the 2007 election campaign. Although I was taking up a temporary job in “democracy assistance” as the resident director for East Africa of the non-governmental International Republican Institute, I was told to expect limited duties specific to the upcoming election.
My job was to step in to manage the office and supervise a small set of ongoing programmes, primarily one involving the training of women and youth in skills to run for office. We were also wrapping up a programme for the State Department training Muslim women regionally for increased political participation and had an agreement with the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) to conduct polling that had started with an exit poll for the 2005 referendum. We had done a survey that spring and would finish the programme with a survey early that fall, before the presidential race went into the home stretch.
I was on six months’ “public service leave” from my job in the States as a lawyer for a Fortune 50 American defence contractor and had previously been a volunteer trainer for IRI in Mongolia late in the Clinton administration and an election observer in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
HITTING THE GROUND
My first week in Nairobi, I accompanied the consultant I was replacing to meet most of the presidential candidates to privately brief them on the results of our most recent opinion survey, our next to last in the programme. We also called on US ambassador Michael Ranneberger, who expressed his desire to have IRI observe the upcoming election, which my predecessor had been telling me Ranneberger wanted. Any plans for such an observation mission had been disclaimed in Washington the week before, and I had trouble getting anyone back in the home office to take the idea seriously, as they confirmed with USAid that an observation mission was not in the works.
The paperwork with USAid for our public opinion and exit poll programme from 2005 unsurprisingly expressed the agency’s concern about the negative trends that had materialised from the seemingly promising democratic breakthrough in the 2002 vote
In preparing for my democracy assistance posting, I had naturally read up on the stillbirth of the promised constitutional reform in the failed “Wako Draft” constitution following the 2002 “Rainbow Coalition” leading to the rise of the Orange Democratic Movement and Kibaki’s purge of his erstwhile anti-Moi allies of the 2002 opposition. I also read up on the recent scandals. Of particular concern, of course, were the Anglo Leasing scams involving corruption in important national security acquisitions revealed by John Githongo who was subsequently blocked from carrying forward as “Anti-Corruption Czar” in the Kibaki administration and went into exile in London. Then there was the 2006 raid, only a year old then, on the Standard newspaper and the KTN television studios, which evoked the “bad old days” of single-party rule and a tightly controlled press and drew condemnation from the diplomatic community, including the US ambassador at the time, Mark Bellamy. The related “Armenian Brothers” circus made Kenya’s security operations look profoundly compromised by criminals. The paperwork with USAid for our public opinion and exit poll programme from 2005 unsurprisingly expressed the agency’s concern about the negative trends that had materialised from the seemingly promising democratic breakthrough in the 2002 vote in which opposition politicians united to support Kibaki against Moi’s choice of his predecessor Kenyatta’s unheralded son Uhuru.
THE AMBASSADOR WAS SURPRISINGLY UPBEAT
Given this background, I was surprised to find Ranneberger seemingly quite upbeat about the state of things under Kibaki as the campaign started to jell for the upcoming election. He made it clear that he wanted IRI to conduct a blue ribbon election observation mission to feature an “African success story.”
My first public event at the embassy residence in the posh Muthaiga neighbourhood was the US Independence Day celebration. The guests of honour were internal security minister John Michuki, representing President Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta, as “the leader of the official opposition.” Michuki featured in my mind for taking credit for the infamous Standard raid on behalf of Kibaki, saying to the media house, “If you rattle a snake, you should expect to be bitten.” “Retired” president Moi, although not in the official receiving line, planted himself front and centre to prominently greet guests. Michuki spoke about his recent “security co-operation” visit to the United States. Vice president Moody Awori was also introduced, but Michuki rather than Awori represented Kibaki.
So the diplomatic tenor had changed for some reason, at least in the approach of the ambassador, who had arrived in mid-2006, although I was perhaps slower than I should have been in fully appreciating the difficulties this would entail for me as an NGO worker engaged in democracy assistance, especially faced with an assertive ambassador who did not formally control our USAid agreement out of Washington, which at the time still involved only the polling and was scheduled to wrap up with a survey in September.
PROCEEDING TOWARDS DISASTER
In August, our office had a distinguished visitor from our board of directors, the late ambassador Richard Williamson, an especially well liked senior figure within IRI. “Rich” took the occasion to visit our Kenya programme while waiting in Nairobi for his visa to Khartoum to travel on to Juba in Southern Sudan. President Bush was to announce his appointment soon as his new Special Envoy to Sudan and we used the time to take him to meet Raila and Kalonzo as the ODM and ODM-K leaders along with a minister or two, and called on ambassador Ranneberger. Ranneberger again said that he wanted IRI to observe the election. Based on this, Rich was persuaded that we would be doing an observation and afterwards we proceeded to discuss who should be recruited as lead delegate. Rich and my boss who had come out from Washington with him arrived at the idea of Lloyd Pierson, a former IRI Africa director who had been the immediate past USAid assistant administrator for Africa. When I pointed out that I recalled seeing a favourable quote by Pierson in one of Raila’s campaign brochures, that idea was nixed. Neither of them had other specific suggestions at the time.
By October the surveys were showing what I sensed to be the conditions ‘on the ground’ — the opposition under the Orange Democratic Movement had put together in its six-member Pentagon’ a broad enough multi-ethnic coalition, building upon the momentum from the unrequited reformist sentiments from 2002, to have a plurality in a divided electorate
Following up afterwards with the USAid Mission, they now said they would “move heaven and earth” to meet the ambassador’s wish to fund an election observation mission. Likewise, USAid wanted to extend our polling programme — which started with the exit poll for the 2005 Constitutional Referendum — with an exit poll for the 2007 election. Although I knew that the ambassador was expressing confidence in “an African success story,” expecting a “free and fair” election, and expecting Kibaki to win, USAid told me that the intent of the exit poll, as with the one we had done in 2002, and on this contract in 2005, was among other things to deter election fraud and this was confirmed in our amended agreement.
To cut a long story short, by October the surveys were showing what I sensed to be the conditions “on the ground” — the opposition under the Orange Democratic Movement in the form now of the ODM Party had put together in its six-member “Pentagon” a broad enough multi-ethnic coalition, building upon the momentum from the unrequited reformist sentiments from 2002 and the successful blocking of the insufficient Wako Draft, to have a plurality in a divided electorate. Kibaki was very slow to assent to the start of his re-election campaign and conveyed a vibe that it was beneath him to do such “retail politics.” Formally, Kibaki was the Member of Parliament for Othaya from the Democratic Party, his vehicle since Moi gave in to pressure from activists and politicians like Odinga to allow non-Kanu parties in 1992. Kibaki had not seemed to want to run as a DP candidate, nor was he willing ultimately to join NARC-Kenya, whose leaders considered themselves the rightful heirs to the 2002 NARC vehicle. The NARC party papers themselves were controlled by Charity Ngilu, a 1997 presidential candidate herself who departed to become the sixth member of the ODM Pentagon. Eventually, Kibaki gave the nod to a new hybrid formation as a re-election vehicle, the Party of National Unity, PNU, both a party through which Kibaki sought re-election to the Othaya seat, and a coalition of various parties associated with politicians in ethnic groups — in other words, a gambit to match up and compete with the regional/ethnic Pentagon.
According to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service in February 2008, during the post-election crisis, by the early fall of 2007, Kibaki’s key aides were admitting to their analyst that Kibaki was not going to win the vote. This was supported by the surveys showing a persistent opposition lead. Unlike today, the election then retained the “first past the post” system that had allowed Moi to claim re-election with 40% or less of the vote, officially, in 1992 and 1997. Odinga was consistently polling well shy of a majority but ahead of Moi’s 1992 and 1997 numbers, with Kibaki trailing by a few points. As the election date closed in, the race tightened a bit, but the scenario did not reverse, and then ODM opened up a bit more of a lead. Although at the last minute the Gallup organisation of the US came in and did a late poll showing Kibaki trailing by only two points in the national vote – this was trumpeted by Ranneberger as showing the race as “too close to call” – the firms regularly polling the race continued to show Kibaki trailing beyond the margin of error. This included both the reputable Steadman and Strategic pollsters that had had a long relationship with the USAid IRI programme dating back to its inception in the 1990s, including the exit polls from 2002, 2005 and again for 2007.
According to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service in February 2008, during the post-election crisis, by the early fall of 2007, Kibaki’s key aides were admitting to their analyst that Kibaki was not going to win the vote
POLL OBSERVATION ON A SHOESTRING
When we got the agreement from USAid for the election observation, funded at a shoestring amount at the end of the fiscal year, USAid had included descriptions by prior job description of various individuals that the ambassador had mentioned previously that he wanted to have invited. These IRI ignored in preparing for our independent observation as an NGO subject to an international code of conduct for independent election observation. As USAid’s right to “substantial participation” in return for their funding, the agreement stipulated its approval of IRI’s “lead delegate/s,” and it repeated the ambassador’s desire for former assistant secretaries of state Chester Crocker and Connie Newman. Ranneberger had worked under Crocker on Angola issues during the Cold War and Newman had served briefly in that role in the first George W. Bush administration, during which time Ranneberger had been her deputy. IRI disagreed with USAid’s right to approval of this appointment as a violation of our independence but did invite Crocker and Newman. Crocker was unavailable but Newman, also an IRI board member, accepted. IRI also invited former ambassadors to Kenya Johnnie Carson and Mark Bellamy. Ranneberger in a call to me well ahead of the election had said that Carson “would not be a good idea,” and that Bellamy should not be included as he was “considered to be anti-government.”
Carson, who was at the time serving as the Africa director for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had to decline, whereas Bellamy was scheduled to participate. On Thursday, December13, 2007, two weeks before the election, I got a call from USAid and was asked to fax our final delegation list — due to be released from IRI in Washington that day – to a number for the ambassador. After sending the fax, I was driving to lunch with my wife and a friend, the spouse of another US NGO worker who had been a Carter Centre election observer in another recent African election and had volunteered to help. I received a call from the ambassador who loudly chewed me out to the point that I had to pull over and step out on the roadside. Ranneberger was incensed that we had Bellamy on the list, and said that he was “laying down a marker” that this was not to happen. He said he did not want to hear that it was a decision from my Washington office as he was holding me “personally responsible as the person on the ground.” If we did not drop Bellamy he would pull the funding for the observation mission, adding that I should not doubt that he could do this.
Arriving in Dagoretti for lunch, I phoned Washington and my USAid contact in Nairobi. Long story short, IRI’s president at the time, who had been assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour himself during the first G.W. Bush Administration, called then assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer to tell her, as he reported, “to get her ambassador under control,” then, on arriving in Thailand for Christmas and Burma meetings, called Ranneberger directly. As a result, I was told to expect that Ranneberger would ask to meet me, and that Bellamy was reluctantly dropped (with a cover story that IRI was not able to secure his plane ticket) but that I was to accept “no more BS” from the ambassador.
The next day, as I was leaving the polling firm, I got a call asking me to come meet the ambassador at his residence the next afternoon. So on Saturday afternoon, December 15, 2007, I drove to the embassy residence in Muthaiga. As it turned out, the purpose of the meeting was more substantive than just smoothing things over after the arm-twisting on Bellamy. I will explain a couple of salient points from this meeting that remain to me significant in trying to learn what happened with the election 12 days later.
I received a call from the ambassador who loudly chewed me out to the point that I had to pull over and step out on the roadside. Ranneberger was incensed that we had Bellamy on the observer mission list, and said that he was “laying down a marker” that this was not to happen. He said he did not want to hear that it was a decision from my Washington office
To start, Ranneberger elaborated on the importance of removing Bellamy from the delegation because of the notion that he was perceived as “anti-government,” obviously meaning anti the Kibaki administration. When Ranneberger had originally raised this objection as Bellamy earlier in the month, I had asked for input from our Kenyan programme staff who reported that this did not seem to be Bellamy’s general reputation in Kenya and IRI staff had checked this with State Department contacts in Washington and found no support for that view there either.
Ranneberger did let me know that he knew what Bellamy had been told about why he had been dropped from the delegation. In other words, he was letting me know, without taking responsibility for the situation himself, that he knew that “we” at IRI had lied to Bellamy. IRI was in a difficult situation not of our making on Bellamy; would we cancel the election observation (as the only international NGO scheduled to observe, this would raise lots of questions we could not answer) or let the ambassador interfere with our delegation? Regardless, once the directive from the top was given to lie to Bellamy about why he was off the list, IRI no longer had completely clean hands.
Another thing in particular stands out now from that meeting in light of what I later learned through Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department after I returned to the US.
The ambassador told me that Saturday that “people are saying” that Raila Odinga, ahead in the polls for president as the vote was nearing, could lose his own Langata parliamentary constituency (which under the existing system would disqualify him from becoming president even if he got the most votes nationally). This was “out of the blue” for me because I certainly was not aware of anyone who thought that. Odinga’s PNU opponent Stanley Livando had made a big splash and spent substantial money when he first announced his candidacy, but he had not seemed to get obvious traction in the race. Naturally, I wondered who the “people” Ranneberger was referring to were. Ranneberger said that a Raila loss in Langata would be “explosive” and that he wanted to take Ms Newman with him to observe voting there on election day.
Ranneberger also went on to say that he wanted to take Ms Newman separately to meet with Kibaki’s State House advisor Stanley Murage on the day before the election, with no explanation offered as to why. I reported all this by e-mail to Washington.
Ranneberger in Nairobi made no disclosure of what he had witnessed but encouraged Kenyans to accept the results announced by the ECK that Sunday and formal congratulations were issued from a State Department spokesman back in the US
Alarm bells went off at IRI’s Washington headquarters when they received my e-mail. I noted Murage’s reputation as “Kibaki’s Karl Rove” (he was also referred to by a former diplomat as “Kibaki’s bagman”). After people were back in the office that Monday, I was called by the top executives present in Washington (in the absence of the then-president in Thailand) in the wee hours of the morning my time. I was instructed that it was imperative that the private meeting with Murage – “absolutely improper” – not take place. Connie was to stay with the rest of the delegation and not go off separately with the ambassador on election day or otherwise. I was given the option to “pull the plug” on the observation mission based on the concerns about Ranneberger’s approach. The ambassador, rather than either IRI or USAid, had initiated the observation mission in the first place, and IRI was heavily occupied with other, larger observations. Nonetheless, based on assurances that Ms Newman would be fully “on board” in our agreement, that she would steer clear of separate interaction with the ambassador and that the Murage meeting would not happen, and my belief that it would be an “incident” in its own right to cancel the observation, we agreed to go forward with precautions.
A SEPARATE LAST-MINUTE POLL OF THE LANGATA PARLIAMENTARY RACE
I got the idea of commissioning a separate last-minute poll of the Langata parliamentary race. I thought that the notion that Livondo would beat Odinga in Langata seemed farfetched, but objective data from before the vote could prove important. I also made sure that we scheduled an “oversample” for Langata for the national exit poll so that we would have a statistically valid measure of the actual election day results in the parliamentary race.
On to the Freedom of Information releases: On Tuesday, December 18, a Ranneberger cable went to the Secretary of State entitled “Kenya Elections: State of Play on Election.” This cable says nothing about the “explosive” Langata parliamentary race issue that Ranneberger had raised with me on Saturday, three days earlier. It concludes: “Given the closeness of the election contest, the perceived legitimacy of the election outcome could determine whether the losing side accepts the results with minimal disturbances. Our staff’s commendable response to the call for volunteers over the Christmas holiday allows us to deploy teams to all sections of the country, providing a representative view of the vote as a whole. In addition, our decision to host the joint observation control room will provide much greater access to real-time information; allowing a more comprehensive analysis of the election process.”
Next, we have a cable from Christmas Eve, December 24, three days before the election. First thing that morning, the IRI observation delegates were briefed on the election by a top Ranneberger aide. I told him then that we had commissioned the separate Langata poll. He said that the ambassador would be very interested, and I agreed to bring results with me to the embassy residence that evening when the ambassador hosted a reception for the delegation. The results showed Odinga winning by more than two-to-one.
In this cable from the day he learned about our Langata poll, unlike the one on December 18, Ranneberger added a discussion of the Langata race:
“11. We have credible reports that some within the Kibaki camp could be trying to orchestrate a defeat of Odinga in his constituency of Langata, which includes the huge slum of Kibera. This could involve some combination of causing disorder in order to disenfranchise some of his supporters and/or bringing in double-registered Kikuyu supporters of the PNU’s candidate from outside. To be elected president, a candidate must fulfil three conditions: Have a plurality of the popular vote; have at least 25% in 5 of the 8 provinces; and be an elected Member of Parliament. Thus, defeat of Odinga in his constituency is a tempting silver bullet. The ambassador, as well as the UK and German ambassadors, will observe in the Langata constituency. If Odinga were to lose Langata, Kibaki would become president if he has the next highest vote total and 25% in 5 provinces (both candidates will likely meet the 25% rule).
12. The outside chance that widespread fraud in the election process could force us to call into question the result would be enormously damaging to US interests. We hold Kenya up as a democratic model not only for the continent, but for the developing world, and we have a vast partnership with this country on key issues ranging from efforts against HIV/Aids, to collaboration on Somalia and Sudan, to priority anti-terrorism activities.
. . .
14. As long as the electoral process is credible, the US-Kenya partnership will continue to grow and serve mutual interests regardless of who is elected. While Kibaki has a proven track record with us, Odinga is also a friend of the US . . .
15. It is likely that the winner will schedule a quick inauguration (consistent with past practice) to bless the result and, potentially, to forestall any serious challenge to the results. There is no credible mechanism to challenge the results, hence likely recourse to the streets if the result is questionable. The courts are both inefficient and corrupt. Pronouncements by the Chairman of the Electoral Commission and observers, particularly from the US, will therefore have be [sic] crucial in helping shape the judgement of the Kenyan people. With an 87% approval rating in Kenya, our statements are closely watched and respected. I feel that we are well-prepared to meet this large responsibility and, in the process, to advance US interests.” END
None of this material about a possible scheme to steal the election in Langata — or the notion that being “forced” to question the election result would be “enormously damaging to US interests” was mentioned in the briefing to the observation delegation or to me that Christmas Eve. Weeks after the election, the Standard newspaper ran a piece reporting that the original plan of the Kibaki camp had been to rig the Langata parliamentary race, but at the last minute a switch was made to change the votes at the central tally, supposedly on the basis of the strength of early returns for Odinga in Western and Rift Valley Provinces.
Ultimately, the election resulted in disaster, with at least 1,200 killed and half a million displaced in post-election violence after open rigging.
The Electoral Commission of Kenya had voted earlier in December, according to the subsequent report of the Kreigler Commission, not to use laptop computers that had been purchased as a key feature of the USAid-funded election assistance effort through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. This decision was never explained and without the computers there was no way to quickly get verifiable results from the voting stations quickly to Nairobi.
The reality of the process was explained to me by a Member of Parliament during the post-election violence (PEV). He said that weeks before the election, when Kibaki had broken the crucial precedent first negotiated between the opposition and Moi back in 1997 to split the authority to appoint members of the Electoral Commission and unilaterally stacked the Commission with 19 of his own choices in the 21 spots, the political players recognised that the process was going to be a no-holds-barred scramble for power and all bets were off on rules.
Also that January, during the PEV, a third-country diplomat explained to me privately that his country had learned that ECK returning officers in key locations had been paid “life changing” amounts of money to turn off their cellphones and drop out of contract with Nairobi so that the vote totals under their jurisdiction could be “marked up” in Nairobi to increase the president’s votes for re-election (consistent with what Ranneberger described in his then-classified January 2, 2008 cable as discussed below). This diplomat explained that his country had discovered the bribery too late, supposedly, to do anything about it. One possible reason for the alleged bribery to be discovered so late would be that the scheme to mark up the central tallies was a last minute substitute for the “credibly reported” Langata scheme Ranneberger mentioned in his Washington cable of December 24 and his meeting with me on December 15.
I expected that the president’s men would learn that IRI had also undertaken the special poll of the Langata Constituency. After the stacking of the ECK, another fateful turning point seems to me to have been the deployment by the president’s re-election team of the Administration Police in the days before the vote. This was something we all witnessed on live television thanks to broadcast reporting from KTN, but which the government denied. The ambassador’s aide confirmed to our observation delegation that this deployment was in fact a use of government security resources for the president’s re-election. Two of the deployed AP officers were killed by mobs and it seems that the atmosphere of a physical power struggle rather than a contest of democratic persuasion ratcheted up that much more at that point.
The fact is that I never have been able to identify a time when Kibaki actually said in public during my time “on the ground” that he was actually willing to entertain losing the election and giving up office in favour of the opposition. Eventually, shortly before the vote, his foreign minister, Moses Wetangula (now in the opposition) said that such a willingness was there, but he seemed to be conspicuously speaking to foreign diplomats rather than to ordinary Kenyans. To this day, no incumbent president in Kenya has ever been found by election officials to have lost a re-election bid.
DONOR VS. DONOR: THE UNITED STATES AND THE EUROPEANS SPLIT
On Wednesday, January 2, 2008, Ranneberger cabled Washington about witnessing with the head of the EU Election Observation Mission, Alexander Graf Lambsdorf, the changing of the vote tallies at the ECK headquarters over the weekend before, leading to the announcement of a Kibaki win on the evening of Sunday, December 30, 2007. The cable, which was declassified and released to me in redacted form through the Freedom of Information Act, reports “[M]uch can happen between the casting of votes and the final tabulation of ballots, and it did.”
The ECK’s partial review of the irregularities was also of questionable credibility, given that all of the commission members were appointed by the Kibaki government, and a number of them were suspected of being clearly biased and/or involved in doctoring at ECK headquarters. The Chairman of the ECK, Samuel Kivuitu, who was widely respected, was surrounded by staff of uncertain reliability and competence. It is worth noting that parliamentary results were not disputed because they were tabulated and announced at constituency tabulation centres, thus allowing no interference at ECK headquarters.
Presidential results by polling station never were published. The suppressed media reporting of the election results that disappeared with Michuki’s broadcast ban did not resurface except for the admission by the owner of the Citizen network in parliament in December 2016 that the numbers had indicated an Odinga win
Kivuitu had only limited authority as head of the ECK. The ECK worked on a majority vote system. It is also important to note that the ECK was required by law to announce the results as received from the tabulation centres. Some obvious irregularities like reporting unrealistically high turnout or clearly altered results could be rejected. There was, however, only a rejection of the results in one constituency in which violence resulted in destroyed ballots. Other alleged irregularities, such as announcing results that ECK personnel personally inflated, should have been, could have been, but were not corrected. At one point Kivuitu told me that his concerns about the tabulation process were serious enough that “if it were up to me, I would not announce the results.” In the end, he participated with other commissioners in an announcement late on December 30.
My team and I, as well as the head of the EU observer mission, were at the ECK vote tabulation centre throughout the tabulation process, and aggressively intervened with Kivuitu and other commissioners and staff to work for transparency. Our judgement is that the tabulation process was seriously flawed but, without having direct access to polling station numbers and doing a polling-station based recount, it is impossible to determine which candidate actually received the most votes. We had consistently predicted a close election. There were accusations of serious irregularities with respect to about 20% of the 210 constituencies. Some ECK insiders have alleged that the purpose of the delay in announcing the results in some of the constituencies was to determine the true count and then rejig it in such a manner as to make up for gaps in the votes for Kibaki.
Announced results differed from results initially received by ECK from the tally centres. We have seen documents that illustrate this. In a close election, with Kibaki winning by about 230,000 votes, such irregularities may have been enough to make a difference.
Nonetheless, Ranneberger in Nairobi made no disclosure of what he had witnessed but encouraged Kenyans to accept the results announced by the ECK that Sunday and formal congratulations were issued from a State Department spokesman back in the US. Live broadcasting was shut down by order of Michuki. Eventually, I received on appeal of a FOI Act request originally from 2009 a copy of a document prepared by the State Department in Washington as “talking points” for the media on election day itself that “spins” an acceptance of an announcement of a Kibaki win with opposition objections.
European foreign ministries and diplomats in the meantime criticised what was obviously a highly irregular process with the suspect tallies and the hurried, secretive swearing-in of Kibaki. On Monday, the State Department changed position through its main spokesman in Washington, saying that “we are not congratulating anyone.” On Tuesday, New Year’s Day, the EU observation mission held a press conference and released its preliminary report, making clear that the election process had fallen “far short of key regional and international standards for democratic elections. Most significantly, they were marred by the lack of transparency in processing and tabulating presidential results, which raises concern about the accuracy of the final result in this election.” The EU observers and other Europeans called for remedial measures, including an immediate independent investigation and audit, with all results openly published. Ranneberger, however, instead of supporting the European calls for remedial action, was immediately promoting “power sharing” for Odinga with Kibaki instead.
The EU seemed to switch positions and come around to support the State Department’s posture, abandoning remediation in favour of “power sharing.” In that time of heightened sensitivity, trying to decipher what was happening, I tied this contemporaneously to reports that secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called EU head diplomat Javier Solano on Thursday, January 3. My 2009 FOI Act request for documents related to that call identified that there was such a document but it was classified and remained too sensitive to release in any form at all. I appealed to no avail, and then last year submitted a request for Mandatory Declassification Review, which was also denied on the same grounds. My latest appeal of that decision has been pending for a few months now.
Many years later, a former senior diplomat was willing to tell me that the US policy was not to assist Kibaki over Raila, and that the US expected consistent relations going forward either way — which fits with the pre-election Nairobi to Washington cables I had got from FOI — but that the policy was to support whatever the ECK announced. A blunter take on what Ranneberger claimed in his cable of December 18, that it would somehow damage US interests if we were “forced” to question the ECK’s results. Assuming it to be true that the State Department was going to back whatever the ECK announced regardless, it was unlucky for me that no one told me about this before the election, as I surely would have taken the opportunity to cancel the IRI election observation mission since the State Department was not supporting the democracy assistance purposes of our agreement with USAid in working for free elections and observing independently in order to, among other things, oppose fraud.
EXIT POLL TOO HOT A POTATO
This policy would also suggest a reason that the exit poll that we conducted for USAid, which indicated a win for Odinga rather than Kibaki, was such a “hot potato” that it was held without public comment by IRI until a statement of January 15, responding to leaks of the results, that the poll was “likely invalid”, then on February 7, after it became a topic of inquiry in a US Senate hearing, definitely “invalid,” then released as valid in August, the day before the experts from the University of California, San Diego who had been heavily involved in the poll design and execution were to testify about it to the Kreigler Commission, having released it themselves in July after a six-month embargo imposed in their consulting contract with IRI.
Ranneberger insisted, though USAid, over my objection, on getting preliminary results of the exit poll on the afternoon of the voting before the polls closed, but clearly did not want the results released to the public as the other exit polls for USAid had been. Ranneberger answered questions from Kenyans and others in an online State Department Q&A on March 12, 2008 while the exit poll was still officially “invalid” and claimed that the poll had just been a “capacity building programme” and never intended to be released.
The USAid contract documents, which I of course had myself and of which I also obtained copies of through FOIA, show the contrary, and I also got a copy of the plan for public release by IRI of the first poll under that agreement, the exit poll from the 2005 Wako Draft referendum. If the State Department policy was to affirm whatever the ECK decided, the exit poll with a contradictory result was decidedly inconvenient.
I did not get anything about this from my FOIA requests, but in the fall of 2010, Daily Nation ran a story reporting that Wikileaks had published documents indicating that three members of the ECK itself had been slapped with “visa bans” by the United States in February 2008 on the basis of evidence that they had accepted bribes. Although Ranneberger had tweeted that former Attorney General Wako was subject to a visa ban at some point, nothing has ever been said publicly by the State Department to my knowledge about the ECK bribery issue.
At the end of the day, Kibaki stayed in office throughout for his second full term. On February 28, he signed his deal with Odinga for “power sharing,” against the active resistance of many on his side. From his unilateral Cabinet appointments of January 8, Kalonzo Musyoka stayed on as vice president and Uhuru Kenyatta was promoted to deputy prime minister from local government minister when the Cabinet was expanded to include various opposition figures in the “Government of National Unity,” including Odinga as prime minister and his running mate Musalia Mudavadi as the other deputy prime minister. Of the two lions who faced off at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre as the drama over the late and missing election returns played out, Martha Karua stayed on for a time as justice minister before resigning, and agriculture minister William Ruto realigned politically after he came under fire over corruption allegations, as well as the ICC charges for the PEV that also stuck to Kenyatta.
THE POLITICIANS FORGIVE THEMSELVES
Collectively, Kenya’s leading politicians agreed to forgive themselves for the election fraud, and for the post-election murder and mayhem. The Kreigler Commission made recommendations for the future, but stayed off the crucial machinations at the ECK. Presidential results by polling station never were published. The suppressed media reporting of the election results that disappeared with Michuki’s broadcast ban did not resurface except for the admission of the owner of the Citizen network in parliament in December 2016 that the numbers had indicated an Odinga win. With much shuttle diplomacy and artful stonewalling of requests for phone, banking and property records — along with a lot of extraordinary misfortune and changes of heart by witnesses, the ICC was thwarted and no local tribunal ever convened to address the violence.
Early during my time in Kenya, Moi and Kibaki made up after their 2002 rift, with Kibaki appointing Moi as his envoy for the Sudan/Southern Sudan negotiations and Moi endorsing Kibaki’s re-election. For 2013, Kibaki completed what had been Moi’s original intention of handing off to Uhuru Kenyatta from 2002, with Ruto back in the fold after his brief time in opposition in 2007-08. Again, in 2013, USAid financed a results transmission system for the electoral commission through IFES. The procurement was botched and the system was not workable, but rather than being shelved from the outset it was set up and used initially to show up on a big screen at Bomas of Kenya some partial results indicating a large lead for Kenyatta before being shut down.
Weeks after the election, the Standard newspaper ran a piece reporting that the original plan of the Kibaki camp had been to rig the Langata parliamentary race, but at the last minute a switch was made to change the votes at the central tally
Without knowing the background of the botched procurement, “experts” told the media this slice of results indicated a “commanding lead” for the Uhuruto ticket from the onset.
The local civil society think tank AfriCOG (disclosure: I consulted briefly with AfriCOG on “observing the election observers”) petitioned the High Court to enjoin the electoral commission from announcing “final” results with the results transmission system shut down but was turned down on jurisdictional grounds, even though the High Court found the petition to raise significant questions. In the absence of the legally prescribed system to transmit the results to Nairobi, there was once again physical drama at the central headquarters, with observers excluded and no backup system in place to obtain verified results from each polling station — the only location where the paper ballots are counted.
Once again, observers were excluded as noted in the final reports of the Carter Centre and Election Observation Group (ELOG) funded by the donors as international and domestic observations respectively. The electoral commission announced final results six days after the vote, with a day to spare on the deadline, even without all the polling station results. Coincidentally, I am sure, the Uhuruto ticket was determined to have .07% more votes than needed to avoid a runoff. The Supreme Court held a truncated hearing quickly following the election, consolidating the challenges to the electoral commission by AfriCOG and by the opposition. The court excluded much of the evidence submitted by the opposition and ignored much of that submitted by AfriCOG; it ordered a recount of votes from a sampling of boxes, but then went ahead and ruled, declining to upset the announced commission verdict without the limited recount being completed and in spite of the fact that significant discrepancies materialised.
Significantly, the Supreme Court found that the botched procurements of key technology, the results transmission system and voter registration and identification systems, smacked of fraud and ordered that they be investigated on that basis. A mere ruling by the Supreme Court was not enough to actually prompt any such investigation in Kenya, unfortunately. Months went by without publication of alleged election results and the electoral commission even refused to testify to parliament. What was eventually published later was incomplete. The electoral commission members were eventually swapped out once again, early this year, after the opposition was willing to expend a small number of lives to protest the inaction of the incumbent government in regard to issues that now included convictions in the UK for bribes paid to Kenyan election and education officials in the scandal known as “Chickengate.” Like the old ECK, the members of the commission were bought out rather than fired, and of course there has been impunity for the bribery even though it was proven in court in the UK.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
So here we are again, in 2017, and I am waiting for answers to my questions as to who is paying for the acquisition of this year’s version of the results transmission system, the so-called Kenya Integrated Election Management System, or KIEMS. I hope it is straightforward and transparent and handles the simple task of sending the results of the vote counting at the polling stations to Nairobi this time.
As an American, it is none of my business whom Kenyans vote for, but with all the investment of Kenyan blood, sweat and tears, and American and other donor funds, I will be disquieted until Kenyans are able to count on knowing how they have voted and be in a position to move their frozen politics forward with the kind of hope that existed before the debacle of 2007.
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The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.
The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.
Contextualizing the information disorder on social media
The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.
It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.
Addressing the information disorder
Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.
The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.
Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.
Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.
For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).
For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.
While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.
As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.
While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.
Building in sustainability
Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.
Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?
In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.
This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.
Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.
Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.
Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.
Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation
Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.
This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.
Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.
Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.
Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.
Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?
The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds
Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.
On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”
The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.
In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio
In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.
Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.
Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.
Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”
On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.
Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.
In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.
Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.
Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government
By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?
For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?
Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).
However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.
East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.
Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.
It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.
Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.
A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations
Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.
Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.
Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.
It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.
Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.
This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.
Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.
Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.
The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.
Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.
On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.
Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.
Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.
This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.
Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.
It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.
A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.
More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.
Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.
Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.
Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?
The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.
Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.
“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.
A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.
At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.
None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.
The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.
My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.
Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.
In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.
Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.
A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.
As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?
None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.
To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?
Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.
For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.
Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).
What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.
Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.
Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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