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THE DEBACLE OF 2007: How Kenyan Politics Was Frozen and an Election Stolen with US Connivance

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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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Mr Flottman is a lawyer in the United States where he works in corporate practice on government contracts.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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