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Media Conference Call: Kenya's Election Unrest [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Michelle D. Gavin, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Paul B. Stares, Director, Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
January 4, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations


PAUL STARES:  Good morning, everybody.  My name is Paul Stares. I'm director of the Center for Preventive Action here at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.  I want to thank you all for joining this media conference call on the current crisis in Kenya. 

We will begin with a short presentation by Michelle Gavin and then open it up for questions from those on the conference call. 

Let me just say a few brief words of introduction about Michelle. She's an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  Prior to joining the council, she served as legislative director to U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, and for six years she was foreign policy adviser to U.S. Senator Russell Feingold.  She has recently been in Kenya and knows the region extremely well, and we are very grateful that she is prepared to give us a short presentation to lead the discussion. 

So without further ado, let me hand over to you, Michelle. 

MICHELLE D. GAVIN:  Well, thanks so much, Paul.  And thanks everyone for being on the call.  Happy New Year to you all.  It's certainly not a very happy year for Kenyans.   

And after that nice introduction and vote of confidence, I'm actually just going to begin with a disclaimer, which is that as we all know, the situation's very fluid in Kenya, new reports and often contradictory reports coming in all the time.  So, important, I think, definitely to keep in mind as we proceed. 

I'll just be very brief. 

I'm more interested in the questions than hearing myself talk.   

But I think that, you know, quite obviously what we have right now is one of the most promising countries in Africa on the brink. And it's still, I believe, entirely possible that it could pull back from that brink, pull together some kind of political solution and get back on a path that it's been on, which has not been without flaws. But broadly, Kenya's been a success story for quite some time.  You've had relative stability.  You've had increasing gains in democratization.  You've had serious economic growth and a great deal of open political space that, you know, a decade ago would have been quite hard to come by. 

However, the situation could degenerate much, much further into a just unspeakable civil conflict and something that it would be very hard for Kenya to recover from. 

I do think that the frequent comparisons to Rwanda are misplaced. These are very, very different societies.  Rwanda, of course, was before the genocide -- and still is -- a tightly controlled, highly centralized society.  This is not true of Kenya.  There are multiple power centers and many, many voices.  There's a great deal of dissent. There's a vibrant civil society, and these things are strengths.   

But it's certainly not inevitable that Kenya is able to recover from this crisis quickly and get back on track.  And it seems to me that the real paradox here is that Kenyan politics have to be able to deliver the solution, but they are in and of themselves the problem. Obviously there's the immediate technical issue of gross irregularities in the tabulation, the process of determining the winner of the presidential election, no question about it.   

But more broadly speaking, what's happened now is a huge loss of public confidence in political processes.  So while everyone quite rightly is calling for a political solution, that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence at the grass-roots level in Kenya.  This is a real problem. 

And of course for a long time Kenyan politics have been plagued by tribalism.  Obviously the political parties don't really have seriously different ideological platforms, different messages about governance and the direction in which they're going to take the country.   

They're these sort of amorphous, ever-shifting coalitions of personalities.  And so the easiest way, then, to drum up support is to appeal to ethnic constituencies.  And so there's this tremendous problem of tribalism and the perception that whoever wins at the ballot box, those people, that ethnic constituency, then, gets to enjoy the spoils, and others may well be out of luck.   

And there's also this problem of -- this constant shifting in the political system, I think, also creates a politics that is more about making accommodations among big men, if you will, than about sort of empowering your average Kenyan.  And part of this is the problem of accountability and obviously the problem of corruption that continues to be such a dampener on Kenya's progress and growth.  And corruption remains a very politically potent issue, a very problematic issue in Kenya.   

And on both the tribalism and the corruption front, these are two areas where there's been a lot of disappointment in the Kibaki administration that came in with such high hopes in 2002, you know, unseating the ruling party that had been in place for nearly 40 years. But there's a little bit of more of the sameness in that sense of at least perception of continued tribal favoritism and corrupt governance, a lack of accountability for those who manage to be close to the inner circle.   

So the politics themselves are the problem, but a political solution is clearly what's required, because it's very hard for me to see how Kenya gets back on track, frankly, without a new vote.  It's difficult just technically to imagine a recount kind of scenario working.  Who knows whether ballots have been destroyed, evidence has been tampered with.  It's just a little -- it seems to me a technical challenge that would be awfully hard to overcome to sort of go through some kind of credible recount process.   

And while the idea of an investigation that exposes irregularities and then through the rule of law somehow moves through the court system is appealing, and I don't discount it, the justice system in Kenya does not have the confidence of the Kenyan people. And even, you know, a case like Nigeria, for example, where there was a disputed election as well, but the courts have shown quite a bit of independence, both before and after that election -- I don't know that Kenya's justice system is in the same place in terms of being able to assert its independence from the executive.   

So the international community that -- is then in this fix of needing to advocate for a political solution in a place where the politics themselves are so problematic. 

But it does seem clear that President Kibaki needs to be sent the message that he's not going to somehow be able to muddle through here and be able to claim a completely legitimate mandate from these elections.  Something is going to have to be done to address these irregularities, and then the very hasty swearing in -- this is -- this simply can't stand. 

But that's also, of course -- it's hard to send that message without -- and be careful to sound like one's not embracing entirely Raila Odinga and his orange democratic movement.  I don't think anyone knows who actually won the presidential election.  I don't think that it's impossible that President Kibaki may actually have won.  Again, I think of Nigeria and the fact that, you know, everyone there actually thinks President Yar'Adua would have won without rigging.  This was a very, very close race.  Everyone knew it was going to be quite close. So it's also possible that Odinga won, don't get me wrong, but you know, it does seem that Raila Odinga has in the past several days been willing to take such a hard line that it almost seems to stoke the violence.  And indeed, you know, getting bodies out on the street, making the country ungovernable is to some degree his only traction right now.  Those are the cards he has to play, and one doesn't -- it's difficult to imagine anyone in the international community wanting to bolster that kind of position or empower that kind of position. 

It does seem based on the reports from early this morning that both Kibaki and Odinga are making more conciliatory noises, less hard- line positions about what needs to be in place before dialogue can proceed, so that's positive.  Both have now met with Bishop Tutu. That seems to be a positive sign as well.  So the situation remains on the precipice, and I guess I'll stop there. 

STARES:  Well, thanks very much, Michelle, for that very clear briefing on the background, both the sort of the deeper structural shortcomings of governments and the various political institutions in Kenya and, moreover, the more short-term options that present themselves. 

As you indicate, the -- these deeper issues clearly have to be addressed over the long term, but there is the short term imperative to settle the crisis at the moment.  As you also indicated, the situation seems to have improved somewhat, given what we understand of the news reports out of Kenya today.  But there is still this -- as you've said, we're still on the precipice here, and could you -- I  wonder whether you could just sort of give your sense of how some of the potential ways to address this short-term crisis can be -- will unfold. 

You know, you talked about the possibility of a recount being really unfeasible given what might have happened to various ballots. That leaves the possibility of a new vote being organized.  Can you give a sense of, you know, what the timelines would be, what has to be put in place?  There's apparently some uncertainty about the constitutional basis of a recount, and I believe that Kenya's Supreme Court has so far not stepped in and made any kind of -- played any kind of role so far.   

Could you just give a sense of how this could play out, the timelines involved, what the various actors have to do to make that kind of situation work? 

GAVIN:  Well, I can try.  That's where a lot of the questions in my own mind are as well and, I think, for everyone watching the situation. I wish I were an expert on Kenyan constitutional law. Clearly we need -- someone who is one needs to emerge, because even the attorney general seems uncertain about the constitutional way forward here. 

Certainly if there were to be a new election, it seems clear that that needs to happen sooner rather than later.  Obviously, these things can't be put together tremendously hastily.  The one timeline that's been mooted by some in the opposition has been within three months.  So I think it would be a matter of how long it would take to get, as you say, Paul, the pieces in place to make that workable.   

This would involve addressing the issue of the electoral commission itself, which no longer has, it seems, the confidence of the parties.  I mean, when you have the head of the electoral commission telling the Kenyan press that he doesn't even know who won the election but that under pressure they announced a result, it seems difficult to imagine that one could proceed with the same cast of characters.   

So, how should such an entity be selected?  Who governs the country in the e meantime?  This, I think, gets us into these discussions of some kind of government of national unity or caretaker government.  Both proposals have been suggested.  But what would that look like in practice?   

And how much compromise is President Kibaki willing to make at this point?  Sort of stepping down entirely seems perhaps a bridge too far, but would he be willing to share power in some kind of interim arrangement? 

And these things, of course, are very difficult to micromanage from the outside.  Ideally, it's a Kenyan process that answers these questions, and I think that this is something that the U.S. State Department has been  underscoring.   

There seems to be a real discomfort at State about, you know, sort of talking with a lot of specificity about just what -- (chuckles) -- what the -- what is called for.   

And it'll be interesting to see if perhaps some of the African leaders who are interested in helping to mediate this crisis, from President Kufuor, president of Ghana and the head of the African Union, whose role remains quite unclear -- you have obviously Desmond Tutu, you have others.  There's news out of Zambia about former President Kaunda wanting to get involved.  One hopes that we don't get a situation of too many cooks in the kitchen.   

But it does seem to be a bit sticky to sort of imagine the specifics of how one would come to some sort of accommodation that would allow the country to be governed and stable and prepare for a new election, particularly given how highly politicized the climate is at this point.  I mean, imagining new campaigning for the presidential election right now -- it's a little frightening, frankly, and it's a double-edged sword.  It seems to be the best way forward, but an international community that puts a lot of pressure on Kenya to hold a new election -- it seems to me there's been some responsibility to try and help ensure that the situation doesn't become incredibly violent in the lead up to that election -- so another very difficult piece. 

And then just to close out, in sort of making these accommodations and deciding how much compromise is enough, what kind of sort of coalition could move forward, it's important, I think, again, to remember that in the eyes of many Kenyan voters, there's always an accommodation for the elites.  There's always an accommodation for the political elites.  But they're not so confident that there's going to be an accommodation for them and for their voice to be heard.  So something that actually inspires confidence in the population and convinces them to stay engaged in a peaceful political process -- that just adds to the degree to difficulty of the task ahead. 

STARES:  Thank you, Michelle.  Let me just ask one further question before opening it up.  Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer apparently is arriving in Nairobi today, if she hasn't already arrived.  The spokesman at the State Department has ruled to her playing any direct mediation role between the president and the opposition leader. 

What do you see her doing in Nairobi that can play a positive role here? 

GAVIN:  Right.  Well, I think that, you know, ruling -- making plain before her shoes hit the ground that this isn't a mediation role is partly simply a strategy to ensure that she's not being set up for failure.  President Kibaki has been extremely prickly about the idea of international mediation.  It's a positive sign, I think, that he did meet with Archbishop Tutu, but he still maintains that, you know, this is an internal matter, that this is one reason why sort of the status of President Kufuor's efforts are a question mark.  So I think, you know, in some ways this is sort of a tactical move to ensure that Assistant Secretary Frazer isn't sort of set up to be snubbed by being cast in this role of international mediator. 

But I think this is certainly the right call.  He is tremendously important to the U.S., tremendously important to the region; and, you know, expressing grave concern at the highest level, and in an intense and engaged way, not just, you know, sort of a message from Washington, but sending someone at this level out to be on the ground is entirely appropriate as a response to this crisis.   

And if she can deliver the message to President Kibaki that this simply -- it's not going to somehow all be okay, it's not going to just all work out, there is going to have to be some redress here and some acknowledgement of the fact that this election -- his election, his victory was not credible, I think that that can be helpful. 

It's important to sort of lay out for the key actors -- and this includes the people around Kibaki -- sort of what the realities are about what they can hope for and how they can hope to extract themselves from the situation.  And I do think that high-level international attention, urging all parties to refrain from additional violence, and trying to encourage dialogue, I think this is helpful.   

I think it also helps to bolster those many, many voices within Kenya, within Kenyan civil society, strong voices who are calling on their countrymen and women to step back from the brink.  So, you know, I do think some moral support to those voices, I don't think that's a small thing.  I think it's very important. 

STARES:  Good.  Great.  Well, thanks again, Michelle.   

We're now going to open it up to the reporters on the line. Could you please identify yourself and your affiliation before you ask your question.  Thank you. 

OPERATOR:  At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the "1" key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any point you would like to take yourself out of the questioning queue, press star "2." Once again, to ask a question, it's the star key followed by the "1" key now. 

Our first question comes from Andrew Schneider from Kiplinger Letter. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I wanted to get your take on how the current developments in Kenya are likely to affect the surrounding region's economy, given the strong rate of growth in recent years. 

GAVIN:  Well, they're already affecting the region's economy, of course, in that fuel shortages -- as fuel is unable to move on its regular routes in East Africa because of roadblocks and instability in Kenya, so these immediate issues, the fall in the value of the Kenyan currency, et cetera.  But I think -- you know, the broader problem is the big picture issue of investor confidence.  You know, Kenya was supposed to be the rock and sort of this bastion of stability, and growth was going to kind of radiate out from there in the region.  And to see, you know, these very vivid pictures of chaos, you know, it will have affects, I think, on investor confidence far far into the future.  Even if in the best case scenario this crisis manages to resolve itself quickly, one doesn't erase the memory of images like that for quite some time. 

So I think there's good reason for the region to be concerned. You know, there are also kind of other regional implications beyond the pure private sector, of course, which is that Kenya's hub for all kinds of international organizations and NGOs, and it's difficult for some of them to do some of their critical programming in the Horn, in Somalia, in elsewhere in East Africa when Kenya is in a state of chaos. 

QUESTIONER:  Michelle, if I may add, it's, I think, appropriate to say that the negative consequences is not something that can be switched on and switched off rapidly.  You know, there was some report today that Kenya's losing $30 million a day and there's investor confidence as you mentioned, and these tend to resonate for some time after the events have subsided.  And so the consequences of what's happening could be around for some while. 

GAVIN:  Exactly.  Exactly.  There are sort of quick fixes where -- you know, the Rwandans, for example, are talking to Tanzania about alternative fuel supplies to deal with the fact that they have a fuel crunch right now because of Kenya.  But this bigger sort of hangover effect of perception that East Africa is an unstable, unreliable place, that takes a long time to chip away at. 

STARES:  Okay.  Next question. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Paulya Lasova (sp) from MarketWatch. 

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hi, thank you.  Actually, my question was somewhat similar to the first question, but if you can talk a little bit more specifically about the impact of this unrest on the Kenyan economy and the local markets and sort of investor confidence, and how severe of a dent do you think this unrest is making into investor confidence. 

Thank you. 

GAVIN:  Sure.  Well, you know, I wish I could be more specific.  I think we've all seen the reports about, you know, specific issues -- again, fuel issues, the currency, the tea auction, et cetera -- but investor confidence it remains to be seen.  I think we can all anticipate what we're going to see, and the World Bank issued a statement that this, you know, really seriously threatens gains in economic growth and poverty reduction. 

So all the indicators are there that this is having the immediate affects, the broader affects of deeply worrying people, the World Bank and others, whose business it is to be concerned about Kenya's long- term growth and stability.  It's impossible to think that potential investors and current investors aren't look at this the same way. 

STARES:  Okay.  Thank you.  Next question. 

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Karen Miller of Pacifica Radio. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi, there.  Thank you so much for this call.  I was -- I'm trying to find out, in terms of the U.S. response in the past situations like these -- because, obviously, other countries in Africa have kind of faced situations like this -- the response this time is it similar, different, the role that the U.S. is taking on this?  Do you have any insight on that? 

GAVIN:  That's a really interesting question because so often, you know, I think the response to election irregularities is sort of country-specific. 

And obviously one can have a debate about whether or not it should be, but I think it -- that it often is.   

And as I think was clear in my opening remarks, my mind keep drifting back, actually, to Nigeria.  Of course, the countries are dramatically different places and with dramatically different political dynamics.  But they're interesting to me in the sense of, you know, both are sort of the powerhouses in their region -- certainly Nigeria for West Africa; Kenya kind of the rock for East Africa.  And in Nigeria you did have an election that international and domestic observers acknowledged was plagued with serious problems. And sort of the U.S. response to that was muted, I think it would be fair to say.    

In Kenya, though, this immediate issue of election irregularities has been followed by of course this horrible violence.  That didn't actually happen in Nigeria.  A lot of people were afraid that it would.  But it didn't 

And part of that may be some new confidence in the courts.  Part of it is probably the fact that everyone kind of thought President Yar'Adua would win anyway.  This situation in Kenya, you know, different on both counts -- not a lot of confidence in the courts, and it really was a tight race. 

So I think that, you know, it seems clear that the initial congratulatory message was far too hasty, and I think that that's clear to everyone.   

And now the U.S. is in a position of trying to find a way to get back to having a stable Kenyan partner.  Kenya's so important to the U.S. as a diplomatic partner in the region, an important partner on counterterrorism issues.  This is a relationship that matters a lot -- in fact, President Kibaki, you know, one of the few African heads of state to get the full state dinner treatment, after his first election.  And there was a lot of enthusiasm about Kenya, a real bullish feeling about this new partner. 

So I think that it's an -- those are interesting new dynamics for the U.S. State Department to be thinking through in how to respond to this crisis.  There's a real U.S. interest in stability and over in Kenya.  But it's -- what that has to be balanced with is a recognition that there's not going to be any order or stability unless people address sort of questions of justice and fairness.  And that's the tension right now, I think, for the policy. 

STARES:  Okay.  Next question. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Lawrence Freeman (sp) of EIR magazine.   

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  May I ask two questions? 

STARES:  Sure.  Please go ahead. 

QUESTIONER:  Okay . The first one is, in the beginning of your remarks and then later on you said that Kenya was either on the brink or approaching the brink and would have trouble recovering from that. 

I was wondering if you could sort of give me a little better criteria for what the brink is -- I mean, if we're there, or you said we're approaching it, what it would look like, and how that would be irreversible.   

The second question is, given the history of Kenya as a British colony -- and the British are very prominent in their economy -- do we expect that the British are going to take a leading role?  I think they were ahead of the United States in questioning the election.  And are they going to lead and the U.S. follow in terms of Kenya because of their history there? 

GAVIN:  Okay, thanks.   

I suppose what I meant by "brink" is kind of the point at which the country becomes ungovernable.  Certainly there's been terrible violence.  I don't in any want to belittle that.  And there are areas of the country that have been quite chaotic, but that's not true of all of the country.  And you still have a situation where the security services are responding to the civilian authorities.  You still have these basic elements of the state in place.  And while you've had terrible, terrible clashes -- tribal-based clashes -- this is not a civil conflict.  The whole country is not up in arms.  That's not what's happening.   

And you know, I think when you go over the brink, it's when those institutions aren't functioning effectively anymore, and the people who are interested in committing acts of violence are more or less running the show.  They're the ones who appear to have power and no one else does, including sort of instruments of the state.  

With regard to the British, I think the British certainly play an important role.  British diplomats have been playing an important role in Kenya for some time, both on sort of pushing on corruption issues and in -- as part of sort of the range of international voices in response to this election.  And there are interesting debates within Britain about the right way to proceed.   

But I don't know that it's going to be a sort of the British lead and the U.S. follow.  In recent days, there appeared to have been a little bit of tension between the two about sort of how specific to be about whether or not they're advocating some kind of government of national unity -- the U.S. less enthusiastic about being specific about that, it appears the British more so. 

And again, I'm not sure that the British would be the sort of leading international players here because I think it's important not to discount the African leaders who are in the mix here and are very, very concerned about seeing Kenya unravel, and I think that they have their own credibility in these situations.  And it's -- some of them. And it's -- you know, they may be in the lead to the degree that any international actor is really going to be decisive in figure out how -- what kind of political solution helps lead Kenya out of this mess. 

STARES:  Okay.  Two good questions.  Thank you. 

Next question. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Abu Shakur Abaud (sp) from Voice of America. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much for taking my call.  I would like to ask a question back to the question of what's next.  When you look at Raila Odinga up to now, at the beginning he was calling for a parallel government.  He compromised.  He wanted a government of national unity as the (Western ?) wanted.  He compromised.  And now he also comes up with creating a government with Kibaki as president, but a transitional government -- (word inaudible) -- to prepare elections. But with all this compromise, the government of Kibaki has not said anything, and his declaration two days ago seems like he wants to talk, but he didn't say directly with Raila. 

So how do you see this will be going on because with the mediation will really Kibaki accept something to happen, and if not, I have a second question concerning the affect in the region.  You said that it's going to affect, but how long will this go on; like report from Uganda saying gas is starting to completely drain out because the biggest refinery is in Mombasa.  So how long do you think the effect of Kenya crisis will take before it becomes a regional crisis? 

GAVIN:  Well, if I knew exactly how long this would go on, I'd be a very powerful person. 

I see your point about, you know, Raila Odinga's positions have clearly evolved over the course of recent days.  He appears based on the latest reports and the conversations that I've had no longer to be demanding, you know, that the president completely step down, and it's harder to see the same kind of dramatic moves mirrored in the government side, although I think we do see more willingness to talk  about the issues.  The attorney general's statements suggest new sort of acknowledgement of the growth flaws in the calculation process, and you know, I think you do see movement on both sides. 

But you're right in that I think it is critical and perhaps one of the places -- just to refer a bit back to the previous question, where international actors, be they regional actors or others, can be helpful by making it plain to President Kibaki and those surrounding him that there's going to have to be more movement.  There's going to have to be some kind of solution probably in the form of a new election. 

You know, how long will this go on?  My mind here turns, perhaps, a bit to the terrible crisis in Cote d'Ivoire that lasted for many years and the kind of regional accommodations that ended up sort of springing up to deal with the fact that an economically very important country have kind of gone under, and people found, you know, new ports to work with, new sources for key commodities, new routes for things to travel from. 

You know, if, God forbid, a terrible crisis in Kenya persists, I think, you know, some of these coping mechanisms are natural in any marketplace.  And there will be some degree of that. 

You know, do I think that that political crisis in Kenya could spill over the borders to political crisis among Kenya's neighbors who aren't already in crisis?  I don't -- I guess I don't see evidence of that right now, but obviously it adds new tension to situations that in some cases are already difficult, and there's the prospect of large refugee flows if things really take a steep downward turn. 

STARES:  Okay.  Thank you. 

Next question. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Rowan Scarborough from Washington Times. 

QUESTIONER:  Hello.  What are the U.S. strategic interests in a stable Kenya in terms of the war on terror and keeping al Qaeda inroads from happening in the Horn of Africa? 

GAVIN:  Significant, I would argue.  Kenya was sort of the focus of the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative, which preceded the counterterrorism initiative that people talk about more frequently now, in the trans-Sahel -- trans-Saharan area, in part because we sort of had a partner that we could work with.  And there's -- you know, obviously Kenyans themselves have been the victims of international terrorist attacks.  U.S. interests in Kenya have been attacked by people linked to al Qaeda. 

So it's -- you know, it's not peripheral.  Kenya's not peripheral to a struggle against terrorism.  And the idea of a really seriously weak state or -- and I think we're -- you know, we're certainly not there yet, but the prospect, if things really go very, very badly, of a failed state in Kenya sort of, you know, extending the failed state space already occupied by Somalia -- that makes it -- that has a certain appeal to terrorists and other sort of international criminals, that it's appealing for illicit activity to be in an ungoverned space.  Ungoverned spaces are hugely problematic at a strategic level for the U.S., and particularly given the priority on counterterrorism.   

So Kenya's very important in this respect.  I mean, Kenya's also just been a reliable partner.  Sometimes the U.S. uses Kenyan landing strips, and we have a sound partnership with the Kenyans.   

Kenyans are important diplomatic actors.  Kenya was very, very helpful in the north-south peace agreement in Sudan.  The Kenyans are important players in Somalia.  Their presence in efforts to resolve other crises that sometimes have links to terrorism and sometimes not would be missed terribly.  It would be a terrible blow.  It's really a tremendously important country in the region for the U.S. 

STARES:  Okay.  I hope that answers your question.  Next questioner, please. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Afen Yerdico (sp) from MSNBC.   


STARES:  Yes.  Please ask your question. 

QUESTIONER:  Oh, okay.   

Hi.  Well, first off, than you for this call.  And my question's going to be about the background of the political violence in the country right now.  We all know that the violence has erupted after the elections.  But I was wondering what exactly was the tension between these two tribes that we've been talking about or how they related to each other that kind of led up to this point in the country. 

GAVIN:  Okay.  Well, when President Kibaki was elected in 2002, he was a part of a coalition of forces that were interested in unseating the KANU party, the party that had ruled for many, many years.  And this coalition included Raila Odinga, who has been sort of a standard bearer for the Luo people.  And it was initially thought that a strong prime minister position would be created -- there was going to be constitutional reform and that a strong prime minister post might be created that perhaps would become Raila Odinga's.  That was sort of the understanding, and that this would be a new way to have power sharing between -- among ethnic groups.  The Luo, who Odinga represents, have felt shut out for -- basically since independence.   

And what happened instead was a falling-out.  Odinga left the government.  The promised constitutional reforms did not materialize, and in fact, the reform constitution that the Kibaki administration ended up putting to a vote was rejected by the electorate, and Raila Odinga was a key campaigner against it.  It was sort of a, you know, this isn't what we thought it was going to be kind of situation.   

So as the Kibaki term went on, increasingly the perception became -- Kibaki is Kikuyu himself -- that the Kikuyu and their allies were increasingly centralizing their grip on power, that the inner circle was increasingly dominated by Kikuyu and that they were sort of the winners in the new Kenya with the new economic growth.  So there's -- you know, historically Kenyan politics and the relationship between key political actors and tribal constituencies, it goes back a long way, many, many years.   

And the Luo have sort of felt that it's their turn.  When I was in Kenya recently, this is something I heard quite a bit from supporters of Odinga, that it's finally the turn of the Luo to be president.  Of course, there are many ethnic groups in Kenya.  There are more than 40; it's not just Kikuyu and Luo.  And they have -- both those groups have alliances with others, but there has long been a perception that the Kikuyu have played a very dominant role in Kenyan politics. 

STARES:  Okay, thank you, Michelle.  Next question? 

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Dale Olipaid (sp) from the New Republic. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you for taking my question.  I would just like to ask whether or not the ethnic divide seems to be a little bit of a red  herring and whether or not the economic situation of various constituencies in Kenya have contributed to tension in the electorate, and whether or not the economic growth has actually played a factor in that, where you have haves and have nots, as opposed to Luo and Kikuyu. 

GAVIN:  I think that's a really fantastic question.  There's no doubt that income inequality has grown even as Kenya's enjoyed the solid economic performance.  So there are big winners and then there are an awful lot of people who aren't winning at all, and this is -- it's not as if every Kikuyus in the country is a big winner, far, far from it.  So I think you make a wonderful point. 

The problem is that the political sort of manifestation of those grievances, that frustration with income inequality, that sense that some people seem to have access to new opportunities and some don't, it all gets filtered through the lense of Kenyan politics, which is consistently -- in which consistently you have leaders making these appeals based on tribal grounds, tribal identity and tribal arguments. 

So a lot of people -- you know, when I was there in November, there was sort of an interest in the sense that, wow, this is a really close race, that's fascinating, but nobody really thought the country would be governed much differently whether Kibaki won or Odinga won. But there was talk that maybe there was -- could be some generational change afoot.  Kenya's a tremendously young country.  They are an awful lot of new young voters and that perhaps over time there would be less tribal-based voting and more sort of issue voting and that this -- you know, some of these deeply held grievances about income inequality and among the young simply about employment opportunities, you know, job creation a number one priority for them for obvious reasons -- that eventually there would be a political system that could accommodate that, that could allow them -- that would reflect that kind of agenda in its politics.  And people talk about, well, well maybe in 2017, you know, we're going to see that. 

So there was a sense that perhaps as the old guard moved out of dominating Kenyan politics, those very real issues that you raise -- and I think they're unquestionably real and legitimate -- might be able to find new expression in Kenyan politics. 

There's one other thing I want to say on this, which is that, you know, some of the ethnic violence, tribal violence, that we've seen reported on, it's certainly clear that it's not all spontaneous.  This isn't all just, you know, angry people, looking around, grabbing a machete and going to hack up their neighbors.  There certainly appear to be cases here where this is directed, and for -- you know, everybody talks about how there's often violence surrounding elections in Kenya, and you'll see these sort of tribal-based, if you will, gangs or militias usually not quite as formal as militias, kind of  spurring up in a campaign season or in an election season and engage in intimidation.  And then they kind of disappear because they've been paid, because they're part of a political strategy, because there's an organization behind them. 

And so I think this is important, too, in understanding tribalism in Kenya. 

Yes, there are deeply held tribal identities, there's frustration, there's a history there of groups feeling disenfranchised, but there's also manipulation of this issue by elites for their own purposes.  In fact, for a long time, the ruling party, when Kenya was a single-party state, argued that it had to be single-party because otherwise you're going to see terrible tribal violence.  Well, you know, guess what? They had a real interest in manipulating the situation so that you would see a little of that, so you could scare both the international community and Kenyans themselves away from political competition.  And now the hangover of those days, of that manipulation of ethnicity, is with Kenya in a serious way still. 

STARES:  Thank you, Michelle.  We have time for more questions.  Next question? 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jim Lobe from International Press Service. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Can you hear me? 

STARES:  Yes.  Go ahead, Jim. 

QUESTIONER:  Yeah.  Thank you.   

There was a lot of press coverage in the run-up to the election itself about the degree to which Muslim Kenyans had been alienated by the Kibaki regime and its close ties and cooperation with Washington. We haven't heard really anything about that since.  The coverage has been mainly focused on the tribal differences.  Could you address that issue and the way it may be playing out now, but as well the broader issue of what did the U.S. do or not do over the last few years that may have made -- that may have exacerbated in some way, not necessarily intentionally, the situation that we face today? 

GAVIN:  Okay.  Let me take that last part first.    

I think -- and there have been some Kenyan voices suggesting that the U.S. and others in the international community -- key partners and donors were perhaps a little too forgiving of the failure to make progress on the fight against corruption.  People were so excited when the Kibaki administration came into power and, you know, they appointed John Githongo to be the anti-corruption czar, if you will. He had headed Transparency International in Kenya, is a tremendously respected figure, and he ended up having to flee the country,  essentially.  He didn't -- he lost the support of the president in his efforts to expose wrongdoing and ensure that those responsible were held accountable. 

And I'm not sure that there were serious enough consequences from the international community, serious enough signals about confidence in the Kibaki administration resulting from those kinds of issues. And those -- that issue, the issue of corruption, of protecting the powerful, of not holding those responsible for corrupt practices accountable for their actions, that is a part of this politics of feeling that, you know, elites get one thing and the rest of the country has to deal with something else.  It's a part of the erosion of confidence in governing institutions.  So that kind of springs to mind as perhaps something that may have been a contributing factor to the degree of frustration and anger and the lack of confidence that we see today.   

As far as Kenya's Muslim community goes, you're right.  There was -- I was kind of interested that there was quite a bit of coverage about that.  And you know, when I was in Kenya in November during the nominating process, which is basically their primaries, and talking to a lot of people about Kenyan politics, and it really wasn't the number one issues for Kenyans, this -- the religious issue, not at all.  I mean, people were interested.  It was sort of a new strategy that Raila Odinga had really reached out to the Muslim community to try and bring them into his coalition, and people saw it as sort of tactically interesting and savvy just in terms of counting votes, et cetera.   

And there are, you know, a number of fascinating tensions within the Kenyan Muslim community. 

You do have extremists within that community.  The community is by no means entirely extreme.  Most of the real -- the kind of extremists that people would find worrying or threatening aren't people who are likely to participate in a political process anyway, to sort of denounce democracy, broadly speaking.   

So you know, as you point out, we haven't heard a lot about it lately.  I haven't heard a lot about it lately in my conversations. Now, there might be something important going on that I'm just unaware of.  That's entirely possible.  It's a complicated place, and I certainly don't pretend to even begin to know everything.  But I'm not sure that it's a dynamic that's sort of critically important to the crisis that Kenya's in right now.   

QUESTIONER:  Could I just follow up?   

STARES:  Sorry, I was just going to say, if I may add a footnote, I think one of the few reports of violence this morning coming out of Kenya is a report of Muslim-related rioting in Mombasa, I believe.  I think I have that right, just a footnote.   

But please, go ahead.   

GAVIN:  Which would make sense in that, you know, the Muslim community there was a part of the ODM coalition.  So you know, where a lot of the rioting is is where people who were backing Raila, and feel that they got robbed, is happening.   

QUESTIONER:  Can I follow up?   

STARES:  Yes, quickly, Jim, yeah.   

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I just wanted to, on the first part of the question, is one of the reasons that the international community in general, and the U.S. presumably in particular, did not stress the corruption issue is because it considered that there were bigger fish, there were higher priorities, particularly in the counterterrorism area?  I mean, was there any kind of -- I know it wouldn't have been an explicit tradeoff, but is that what they were more focused on?   

GAVIN:  Well, I -- you're right and, you know, never an explicit tradeoff, but that is also my interpretation of the situation.   

STARES:  Okay, thank you.   

I'm not sure how many other questioners are on the line, but let's proceed.   

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Lachlan Carmichael from the Associated Free Press.   

QUESTIONER:  That's from AFP, which is Agence France Presse.   

And sorry if I missed some parts of this call-in, but I wanted to ask you what the stakes are for the United States are in Kenya.  Is it of strategic interest, such as in the war against terror?  Or is it a broader goal of just advancing democracy in East Africa?   

GAVIN:  Okay, sure, that's similar to a question that we'd had earlier, and so I'll just try and be very brief.   

Yes, I think Kenya's an important counterterrorism partner to the U.S.   

It's sort of the central focus.  So certainly others were critical in early East Africa counterterrorism efforts before a lot of the focus shifted to Ethiopia.  Kenya's an important diplomatic partner in conflict resolution in the region, tremendously important both for Sudan, important for Somalia.  The U.S. does -- you know, I don't discount in any way the U.S. does want to see democracy and prosperity take hold as much as possible in as many parts of Africa as possible, and there was a real perception that this was something that was happening in Kenya, particularly earlier in the Kibaki administration. And then seeing the kind of economic growth rates that Kenya has enjoyed recently, these are positive.  No one wants to see that rolled back. 

So it is of importance in counterterrorism.  It's important more broadly in sort of conflict resolution issues.  It's of importance in the big picture agenda of a stable and more prosperous Africa that could become a more significant trading partner for the U.S. -- important in all those ways.  And the flip slide sort of real disaster in Kenya, a failed state in Kenya becomes a major strategic problem for the U.S.  If we look at the kind of mess that -- and the serious policy implications of a failed state in Somalia, the idea of kind of extending that to even greater territory in Kenya, and I certainly don't think that Kenya is a failed state.  I'm not saying -- I'm projecting sort of a worst case scenario.  But that goes into the strategic calculus for the U.S. as well, of course. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  And in the sense that Islamists could roam free if that were the case. 

GAVIN:  Yeah, that all kinds of actors interested in illicit activity can operate in a failed state situation.  So obviously, the group of greatest worry would be Islamist terrorist, al Qaeda-linked terrorists and the fear that they'd be able to operate openly and freely from a base of an ungoverned space in Kenya would be the worst of it, but plenty of other opportunities for basically international crime. 

STARES:  And as Michelle said earlier, Kenya's already been the scene of a(n) al Qaeda-sponsored attack in the late 1990s against the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. 

GAVIN:  And then -- yeah, additional attacks in Mombasa.  And the Kenyans know terrorism.  They have suffered from it deeply, and we know what it's like to have our interests in Kenya targeted directly. 

STARES:  Okay. 

I'm not sure, again, how many questions we have remaining, but please continue. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Lawrence Freeman (sp) from EIR magazine.  

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  I was wondering if I could ask again -- there have been references in the press in terms of a similar type of rioting that occurred in 1997 and possibly 1992, between these same groups or similar -- or maybe aligned differently.  Could you say something about the history of this and what the causes were then and if they're related to the problems today? 

GAVIN:  Sure.  There's been some degree of violence and rioting and ethnic clashes between these groups accompanying every election in Kenya.  There hasn't been violence of this degree in about 25 years.   

So as I was saying earlier, there's almost always some violence that kind of spins up around the elections, particularly in places where there's a deep history of these ethnic tensions.  And as was suggested earlier, in some of these cases it's -- that means, you know, someone has deliberately stoked these tensions in these places.   

But -- so this -- you know, I think everyone expected to see some degree of localized violence surrounding these elections too -- everyone I talked to expected some degree of that -- but not anything on this kind of scale.  That's the real difference.   

But yes, the kind of tensions that you've seen in these earlier cases is -- it's -- you know, it's a function of people being mobilized to back a certain candidate or party based on, typically, ethnic grounds and trying to intimidate those who might want to support someone else, acting out in anger if the election result isn't what they had been working for, et cetera.  So that's kind of all part of that dynamic that we had talked about in response to the question about whether or not economic tensions rather than tribal were really behind this. 

STARES:  Okay.  Thank you, Michelle. 

GAVIN:  Sure. 

STARES:  Next question? 

GAVIN:  Sorry.  I'm sorry, Paul, because I'm really enjoying this, but are we supposed to be wrapping this up at noon? 

STARES:  We should be wrapping it up very soon.  I'm unclear how many questions --  

OPERATOR:  We have --  

STARES:  Can the conference call coordinator give me a sense of how many are still waiting?   

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  We have no more questions in the queue. 

STARES:  No more questions.  Okay.  Well, this has been a terrific discussion.  I want to thank you again, Michelle, for participating.  I'm sure she would be willing to field any follow-up questions you may have to her, for her, at the council, if that's acceptable to you, Michelle.   

GAVIN:  Sure.  Of course. 

STARES:  And -- but without further ado, let me say, again, thanks again and thank you all for being on the line today.  Bye-bye. 

GAVIN:  Thank you.  Bye.















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