from Africa in Transition

International Observers and the Kenya Election

Last updated August 15, 2017

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, observers for the general election in Kenya, greet each other next to former Senegalese Prime Minister Aminata Toure in a tally centre in Nairobi early August 9, 2017 Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS
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Sub-Saharan Africa

Elections and Voting

The outcome of the Kenya elections remains disputed. The International Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) declared Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent president, the winner of the presidential election. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, however, refuses to accept the result. He continues to maintain that the elections were “stolen,” apparently at the ballot counting consolidation stage. He has promised to reveal his ‘evidence’ to the public. Meanwhile, pro-Odinga demonstrations have died down, and a work stoppage campaign largely failed. 

Criticism of police and security service brutality is mounting. Amnesty International is calling for an investigation of reports that police have shot and killed pro-Odinga protestors. The Kenyatta government is rhetorically adopting a strong “law and order” stance, especially with respect to critical social media posts. State House spokesmen have said that the police will move against “illegal” demonstrations and will not tolerate breeches of the peace, perhaps hints of an impending crackdown. Estimates of the death toll from security service killings of Odinga supporters ranges from four to more than twenty, depending on the source. (However, to provide some perspective, last week in Nigeria, at least 134 were killed in politically related violence or ethnic conflict.) President Kenyatta is calling for election disputes to be adjudicated in the courts. Odinga’s supporters are refusing to do so, saying that the courts stole previous elections on behalf of Kenyatta. So it is unclear what will unfold next. Odinga has promised a press conference, initially scheduled for August 15 but now postponed.

Meanwhile the nine international monitoring teams – including the Carter Center, the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the Commonwealth – are commending the IBEC on the elections. Odinga and his supporters are expressing their disappointment in the international observers, and they are specifically critical of Thabo Mbeki (head of the AU observers) and John Kerry (head of the Carter Center team). They see Mbeki, former South Africa president, as biased toward Kenyatta because of their long professional association as chiefs of state. They are also critical of what they see as Kerry’s inattention to their claims of fraud. (Odinga had publicly welcomed Kerry’s participation in July.) Odinga supporter and current senator, James Orengo, is quoted in the media as saying “some of them just have big names but have nothing to offer on matters of observing elections.”

Do Odinga’s supporters have a point? With respect to African elections, outsiders love international observers, and western governments often fund them. Observers provide an “objective” means of validating – or not – the outcome of elections. However, the role of observers is limited. They can certainly observe the polling on election day, but observing the consolidation of ballot tallies nationwide is more difficult. And it is at the consolidation stage that elections can most easily – and clandestinely – be stolen. Consolidation of ballot counts is where Odinga and his supporters are saying that Kenyatta stole the elections. Africans often question just how much foreign observers see and understand about African elections, and criticize their usual departure after election day before disputes are adjudicated. Some Africans see the real value of foreign observers as providing cover for domestic observers rather than providing an authoritative evaluation of the quality of the elections.  After all, it is harder for the police to beat-up a local election observer who knows what to look for if a foreign observer is in the next room.    

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