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The Capital Interview: Frazer Says Kenyan Crisis Has Consequences for South Sudan, Somalia

Interviewee: Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Africa Affairs
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson
January 18, 2008

Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. diplomat in charge of African affairs, says Kenya’s political crisis since disputed elections at the end of December could have serious regional consequences. Frazer, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, says Kenya’s turmoil will affect U.S. efforts to consolidate the peace process between north and south Sudan, and it has already had a “major impact” on limiting the deployment of African peacekeepers in conflict-torn Somalia. Frazer declined to assign primary blame for the unrest to either side—supporters of President Mwai Kibaki or those loyal to opposition leader Raila Odinga—but urged both sides to cooperate to establish a legitimate government. She said that “until there’s dialogue, we’re not going to have normal relations with the government.”

You’ve just come back from Kenya. How alarmed were you by what you observed there? Can you talk a little bit about the situation on the ground?

The thing that I was most alarmed about was how polarized the public seems. There is a lot of stereotyping about different ethnic groups. There is certainly a feeling among those who feel that they were cheated in the election—i.e. the Orange Democratic Movement [ODM] supporters—that they’ve once again been disenfranchised, that once again all of the resources are going to go to one ethnic group, particularly the Kikuyu [the ethnic group of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki]. I found that extremely disturbing, this ethnic overlay of what is essentially political competition.

I was, on the other hand, very heartened that the voice of civil society is stronger, that civil society has said very clearly to both President Kibaki and the honorable Raila Odinga [ODM presidential candidate] that they must come together in dialogue to save their beloved country. That’s a media campaign, “Save our beloved country.” You see the worst and the best in Kenya, the best in the voice of civil society but the worst in the population and the polarization of the population.

You suggested just before you left Kenya that the United States cannot continue to conduct business as usual in Kenya. Can you elaborate on that?

There’s a crisis, and we can’t act as if the sitting government is fully legitimate. In fact, it’s only a partial cabinet as it is. We really do need the government to reach out to the opposition, the opposition to reach back, and that there be a dialogue so that we can have a legitimate government that’s representative of all Kenyans. Right now, President Kibaki reflects about four million, Raila Odinga about four million, because the electorate is almost completely divided now, fifty-fifty. No business as usual means we understand that there’s a political crisis, and until there’s dialogue, we’re not going to have normal relations with the government.

Some analysts have said that what’s happened in Kenya sets a bad example for other African countries, that if you want to engage in election fraud, there won’t be any consequences brought to bear. Do you share this concern?

No, I don’t. I think this notion of contagion is overstated. Each country has its own election, its own circumstances. The head of the electoral commission has clearly said that he does not know who won this election. We from the outside should not jump to one side or the other because we don’t know either. And the United States government had two hundred observers on the ground and we’ve looked at various scenarios and depending on how you look at the scenarios, Kibaki could have won, or Raila could have won. This was really a toss-up. It’s incorrect for us to immediately say that one side won because of rigging or lost because of rigging. What’s important to say is there was rigging. There were irregularities. Those irregularities were on both sides. We don’t know how it impacted the outcome of the election.

It’s a very unique situation in Africa, but in Kenya, most importantly, where you have essentially an almost divided electorate. Essentially, about 230,000 votes may have been the margin of difference here, out of more than eight million votes. It was a very close election, and the institutions didn’t prove resilient enough to withstand this type of tie. Our institutions in 2000 [during the U.S. presidential election] had a bit of a challenge as well, but we all had confidence in our courts, whereas one side in Kenya doesn’t have confidence in its courts to provide the legal remedy.

Given that Kenya has played such a strong role in both Somalia and in Southern Sudan with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, where does this leave U.S. policy toward East Africa?

On Sudan, the most immediate impact of the crisis in Kenya is on our approach to implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [CPA]. Kenya was the lead of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development—the IGAD countries—which we had hoped would convene a major conference to bring both the north and the south together to see how the region and the international community could address such questions as the impasse over Abyei [disputed oil-rich territory in Southern Sudan], and the issues of preparing for the elections. Now it’s unlikely that conference is going to take place anytime soon, so we will probably have to look at a different approach to mobilizing the region and the international community to support CPA implementation. It has very little impact on the situation in Darfur.

On Somalia, it’s had a major impact. The most immediate impact is on the deployment of AUMIS, the African Union forces to Somalia. We had about 659 Burundians ready to deploy to Somalia on January 6 and they weren’t able to because of the fuel shortage, because of the crisis in Kenya. The same with the rotation of Ugandan troops to Somalia. So that’s sort of the most immediate impact, strengthening the African Union force which is necessary to get the Ethiopians to withdraw.

But more broadly, on Somalia, and beyond Somalia, really the war on terror, there are many terrorists who are transiting in and out of Kenya right now. Some of them are based in Mombasa, some are in Nairobi, who go in and out of there. Any time a country is in political crisis, these groups can take advantage of that. And so we really have to be very watchful. But even though Kenya is in a political crisis, it has not deployed its military. Its military has stayed in the barracks and can still fully play the role it’s been playing in terms of denying Kenya as a safe haven for terrorists. The forces on the street are the paramilitary, the General Service Unit. They’re police units, not military units. While we have to be watchful, we feel that there will be a political solution.

A lot of African countries seem to be concerned that the formation of Africom [the new U.S. military command for Africa] means the militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa. Can you share your thoughts on Africom and its interdepartmental nature and how that’s working out thus far?

I don’t think it’s the militarization of Africa policy. In fact I think it’s the consistency of the Bush administration, which has had a very robust policy across all areas, whether you’re looking at our foreign assistance budget at $6.5 billion, or whether you’re looking at the work on HIV/AIDS. Across the board, we’ve had these significant initiatives: the Millennium Challenge Account, the PEPFAR Initiative [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], the Education Initiative, the Global Peace Operations Initiative. So this is an administration that’s done things in a big way in Africa. And Africom follows in that way. It’s really an internal reorganization. Before, Africa was divided between three different combatant commands: European Command, Central Command, and Pacific Command. Now we have a single command.

What is your opinion of how the interagency component will work? Obviously the military budgets tend to be a lot larger than State Department budgets. If people from the State Department are pulled to Africom, does that leave a dearth of people in the State Department?

We certainly have to be concerned about that because the military has far more people than there are Foreign Service Officers. So that’s definitely true. As I’m asked to give up Foreign Service Officers from my bureau, I definitely look at what impact that’ll have on our ability to do diplomacy. It’s a balance. A political adviser is standard. We give a political adviser to all the commands. This new deputy [commander] position is different. They’ve asked us for about three or four other positions from the State Department. Then I think they’re looking to [the Department of the] Treasury, they’re looking to USAID and some of the other agencies to fill out their ranks on the civilian side. So yes, it can have a significant impact on our organization.

Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria are all regional hub countries that now are caught up in domestic political concerns—South Africa with its transfer of power, Nigeria with the situation in the Niger Delta. What countries do you see as being new or emerging leaders on the continent?

Ghana is certainly one. [Ghanian] President [John] Kufuor is the head of the African Union right now. Ghana certainly plays an important role in West Africa, in the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] community. Tanzania is another country that’s playing a significant role in regional diplomacy. Uganda certainly is playing a significant role, not only in Somalia but also in the Congo, and a positive one. There are a lot of medium-sized countries that in fact do play [a positive role]. Senegal has always been active in regional diplomacy, and global diplomacy for that matter.

The regional hub really is an issue of fact rather than an issue of diplomacy—in the sense that, regionally, most of the international community infrastructure is based in these countries: telecommunications, the transportation hubs. It’s the infrastructure that’s in these countries, in addition to their ability to project power and influence. But also just the fact that the financial markets are primarily located there. So you can’t get around them—their impact on their subregion is significant in a way that, for instance, Ghana and Mali [are not]. They do not have that type of infrastructure that you see in Nigeria , nor do they have the type of international presence that you see in Nigeria .

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