Guest Post: Kenya’s first presidential debate

(Jessica Grody is Project Manager for the Uwezo Evaluation Team, and is currently based in Nairobi)

Yesterday marked a historic event in Kenya: eight candidates participated in the country’s first ever presidential debate. With less than a month to go until the March 4th elections, the presidential aspirants assembled for the first of two organized debates, broadcast across the country on multiple television and local radio stations and live-streamed on YouTube. It would be easy to write many pages chronicling the faults and missteps of this election process, which include a fight over the election date itself, a series of delays in voter registration following the botched procurement of voter registration kits, last minute party defections by candidates who failed to win their party’s nominations, and of course the impending ICC trial of a leading candidate to investigate his role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, but I choose instead to focus on some of the many positive aspects of the debate.

Perhaps the first sign of success was the interest in the debate itself. Despite the cynical assertions I hear regularly that in this election, like in all others before, people will vote along ethnic lines, everyone I know in Nairobi, friends and colleagues, taxi drivers and security guards, tuned in to hear the candidates make their cases for why they deserve your vote. While the six leading candidates were originally invited to attend, the two others whose names will appear on the ballot won the right to participate after one successfully obtained a court order to guarantee his inclusion. While I’m not sure if their inclusion added to the discussion or merely took time away from the candidates who are more legitimate contenders, it is significant that they were able to avail themselves of the justice system to participate in the democratic process.

The debate lasted more than three hours and addressed tribalism, education, health, corruption, security, and other issues. I heard criticisms that the rhetoric was less debate and more stump speech, but three hours of conversation on the major issues facing Kenyans provided a fairly clear understanding the candidates’ positions and was definitely democracy-in-action.

This debate also highlighted achievements towards equality and inclusion. Even though Martha Karua is not expected to win, it’s notable that a female candidate is participating as a respected contender. The debate was moderated by one male and one female news anchor, and the pre- and post-debate analyses included both male and female experts and commentators.

As a quick aside, during his answer to the question asked about education, Peter Kenneth talked about the need to improve the quality of education rather than just the quantity, and pointed out that increasing school inputs (classrooms, books) is not equivalent to improving learning outcomes. That is one of Uwezo’s main focuses, so it was encouraging to have that message repeated by a presidential candidate.

A lot could go wrong between now and the inauguration of the next president, most seriously a repeat of the ethnic violence sparked by alleged fraud during the previous election, but the completion of this first successful presidential debate deserves to go down in the books as a positive step towards an open and fair democracy in Kenya.

A template for writing about African elections

I just came across Sean Jacobs’ interesting blog, “Africa is a country,” which directed me to this  piece about how predictable African elections, and their failings, have become. Reads like a “mad lib” story — in this case, humorous and clever because it rings sadly true…

“….Nothing underscores the apathy and inconsistency that characterize Western diplomacy in _____ more than the current impasse…The legitimacy crisis threatens to trigger another round of civil war in a country that has already __________ (short-phrase recap of how many people died there in recent memory, thereby justifying interest).”

“The ____________[major INGO] cited serious irregularities, including the loss of _____ (electoral documents) in _______ (city/town/village), a _____ stronghold….. Meanwhile, according to ________ (INGO) multiple locations in _______ (another city/town/village), a bastion of __________ (current ruler) supporters, reported impossibly high rates of 99 to [over] 100 percent voter turnout, with all or nearly all votes going to the incumbent.” (Note: Some wisely fix this slightly lower than 99 percent; adjust as needed.)

“….As grievances and disputes over electoral law arose, the CENI [independent electoral commission] failed to provide an adequate forum for dialogue with the opposition.” (Sorry, players, that one goes verbatim in every election post-game.)


A bit of Donald Trump politics in Zambia?

Just a few months ago, my fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, made a series of public outcries that our President Obama might not be a “real” American, and accused him of foreign origin. It was a few weeks of utter silliness, until the White House finally put the issue to rest by releasing a copy of his birth certificate.

Now the Zambian opposition is doing much the same — accusing Rupiah Banda of “foreign” parentage, and hoping the high court will render him ineligible for the next election. It would be cute to say that the Zambians were taking a play out of the Trump book, but this one has a Zambian precedent that pre-dates the Donald, when much the same was done to President Kaunda, the founding president of that country!

Daily Nation: – Africa |Zambia opposition party moves to court to contest Banda’s parentage.

Zambian President Banda

The current debacle involves accusations that Banda’s father was Malawian. The not-so-amusing part of all this is that 50 years ago, these states did not exist, and Africans decried the arbitrary colonial boundaries that divided ethnic and cultural groups. (My colleague, Dan Posner has a nice article about the implications of this division in Malawi and Zambia, and a larger argument about African boundaries can be found in Jeff Herbst’s book.)

While patriotism can be a positive force for state-building, these types of cheap political maneuvers, which needlessly distract voters from substantive issues, are as big a waste of time for Zambians as they are for Americans.

From Nairobi

I arrived last night in Nairobi and today we kick off the field research for our evaluation of the Uwezo initiaitive. I’ll be here a few days for training until we dispatch to other provinces. After months of planning, it’s exciting to finally get going on this work.

The taxi driver who brought me from the hotel confirmed that business has been booming in Nairobi. His one fear, however, is the upcoming elections — that once the campaigns begin, violence may come next. Which is the same anxiety people expressed when I visited Zimbabwe in November. Such a tragedy that people have such (realistic) expectations, and what it implies for the prospects for building democratic institutions.

Why South Africa’s upcoming local elections matter

In just nine days, South Africans will return to the polls to vote for several thousand local councilors throughout the country. At first blush, this might seem a singularly mundane event. But consider a few facts: First off, South Africa is one of the continent’s few relatively stable democracies, having had a series of free and fair elections and two presidential turnovers since 1994. Every election sets something of a bar for what democracy might be in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. While Nigeria’s recent election was considered a fair one, it was also marred by episodes of post-election violence. And while there are no reports of violence in South Africa, increased police presence in certain areas is a response to perceived voter intimidation.

Second, the responsibility for “service delivery,” which includes vital outputs like water, electricity, sanitation, and community development more generally have been delegated to local governments. While the country is among the wealthier middle-income countries, huge inequalities persist, and large swaths of the country continue to be marred by truly unpleasant living conditions. If the poor are going to use their vote and the democratic process to improve the environment in which they live, surely the best near-term prospects are through local government.

Third, and I don’t want to over-state this, the political future of the country could pivot a bit on the fate of these elections. In particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is giving the ruling African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in a few key areas including in the economic powerhouse province, Gauteng. The big question is whether voters will be able to actually remove poorly performing ANC councilors or, as is too often the case in post-liberation countries, the idiom of liberation begins to overshadow the mandate to govern well, and people are stuck with lousy, self-serving leaders. Polls are showing that at least in a few places, voters are inclined for some change. And if they act on this, the next question will be to what extent the ANC will take that message as a prompt for reform or political revenge.

Elections are scheduled for May 18. A guide is available from the Mail and Guardian

Post-election violence in Nigeria

The Punch:: BREAKING NEWS: Fresh post-election violence claims lives in Northern states.

I was excited to read about the free and fair elections in Nigeria — West Africa certainly needs a bit of good news after the debacle in Ivory Coast… and more importantly, Nigeria’s own tumultuous history of rigged and illegitimate elections. News of  rioting and violence in the North took some gloss off, however. So far, it seems regionally confined, and hopefully broader consensus about the legitimacy of the elections will serve as a constraint on violent impulses even among those who did not support Goodluck Jonathan for president. With a series of elections scheduled to take place around the continent in the next year, potential spoilers don’t need another negative role model from Africa’s most populous country.

Swazi protesters want “democracy,” but not end to monarchy

BBC News – Swaziland police disperse Manzini democracy activists.

The Swazi monarchy is doing all it can to close out the political space for protesters seeking to gain momentum in the recent series of challenges. They’ve brought out teargas and rubber bullets, and pre-emptively detained protesters. But unlike in places such as Egypt, where citizens wanted to see the reigning despot completely out of power, out of town, and perhaps in jail, or dead, in Swaziland, there remains widespread attachment to traditional authority. Protesters are thus calling for a constitutional monarchy, which would include an unbanning of political parties, the granting of meaningful elections, etc., but in some type of hybrid with the current regime.

Despite the prevalence of democratic regimes throughout Africa, many foreign observers just don’t realize how important traditional rulers remain in the lives of ordinary citizens. And in many places, including in relatively modern and industrialized South Africa, traditional rulers have been granted a substantial degree of authority and autonomy in local affairs.

Unfortunately, I think this kind of dual authority structure is ultimately  very limiting for democratic governance. It is difficult to see how the Swazi nation would be able to navigate its way to some type of true democratic arrangement, while the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful King remains on the scene in an official role. There would be too many temptations to intervene — either to heavy handedly structure the outcome of elections and/or to challenge policy directly.

For a long time, traditional leadership was seen as an old-fashioned and irrelevant subject for serious investigation. But as scholars and other observers have come to recognize the importance of traditional leaders (chiefs, headman, etc.), there will be closer and more thoughtful scrutiny. Kate Baldwin, currently at CSDP at Princeton is doing some interesting research on this question.

I did a quick analysis of Afrobarometer data — a survey that in the recent round covered 20 countries (but not Swaziland — as the survey targeted countries that are… or were… considered democratic in recent years), and looked at responses to the question, “How much influence do traditional leaders currently have in governing your local community?” And below I plot the percent of each country’s population that said “some” or “a great deal” — rather than “none” or “a little.”

Overall, more than 50 percent of respondents said that traditional leaders were playing a substantial role. Given that traditional leaders are very rarely elected, the question remains what kind of democracies are these? It’s not a rhetorical question, but one worth considering — if major decisions, including the resolution of major disputes and the allocation of resources are mediated through traditional leaders. If the Swazi people want free and fair elections, but they also want to maintain the monarchy, is the thing that they are demanding the same thing that we often call “democracy?”

Review of Peter Godwin’s THE FEAR – The Last Days of Robert Mugabe

In his latest book, The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, Peter Godwin delivers a superbly written account of contemporary Zimbabwean politics. But it is no pleasure read. We all knew that Mugabe was a bad guy, but Godwin bears witness to the almost unthinkable acts of terror that this dictator carried out against ordinary citizens and political activists. There is very little to smile or to laugh about, or, frankly, to feel hopeful about. Nonetheless, this is a necessary chronicle of how a man has managed to stay in power for more than 30 years, amassing great personal fortunes, even while social conditions have plummeted since the promising early years of independence.

I met Godwin a few years ago when he was giving a talk at Princeton, and subsequently had a chance to meet with him about common interests in Southern Africa. It had been at least a year since I saw him last, when I was in Southern Africa this past November and saw him being interviewed on South African television. I was en route from Joburg to Zimbabwe to do a bit of work and research with a human rights organization there. Although his book was everywhere in South Africa, it was certainly nowhere to be found in Zim. A week and a half later when I was on line for my flight home I saw Godwin boarding the same flight and we took a cab home together, as we live in the same neighborhood, and he kindly gave me a copy of the book, which is the one I just read… finally, after too many months on my shelf. The American version is published by Little, Brown, and has a slightly different cover.

Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and much of his and his family’s relationship with the country is chronicled in two earlier autobiographical books, Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. Having worked as journalist, lawyer, soldier, and human rights activist, but living now in New York with his family, he writes as both insider and outsider, a patriot to some, a traitor to Mugabe apologists. The Fear intertwines just a bit of family portraiture – conversations with his sister and mother – with what is largely a chronicle of travels around Zimbabwe in 2008.

The Fear provides some insight into the state of national politics, including what is now pretty well known – such as how Morgan Tsvangirai has been outmaneuvered by Mugabe in several rounds of political brinkmanship, the lackluster response of African leaders, and fissures within the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But the real contribution is Godwin’s narratives of the brutality of Mugabe’s CIA- and secret police-equivalents and ZANU-PF party loyalists. Take, for example, the not-even-close to being the most violent account in the book — of Denias Dombo, who “believed it when he was told that Zimbabwe was to hold free and fair elections.” He did his work as district secretary for the MDC, and went to investigate a report of a colleague being beaten by ZANU-PF rivals. He soon found his house burned, and then when confronting attackers of his family,

…they converged upon him, with their rocks and iron bars and their heavy sticks, until, he says, ‘my blood was rushing everywhere.’ He tried to protect his head with his arms while they beat him. ‘I heard the bones in my arms crack and I cried out: “Oh, Jesus, I’m dying here – what have I done wrong?” ‘ And as they beat him, on and on, his assailants made him shout ‘Pamberi ne [up with] Robert Mugabe,’ ‘Pamberi ne ZANU-PF,’ ‘Pasi ne [down with] Tsvangirai.’

Dombo’s was just one of many, many accounts of ruthless campaigns that resulted in crowded hospitals and widespread deaths.

While Godwin recounts Mugabe’s many attempts to blame all the country’s current problems on the legacy of white rule, he makes clear that this claim has become stale in the wake of the regime’s legacy of deliberate destruction. The book offers no explanation for the Mugabe terror except for the insanity of the man himself. While there is surely something to the thesis of Mahmood Mamdani’s book, When Victims Become Killers, Godwin fingers most of the blame on a man whose traits and habits emerge as laughable as much as they are frightening. But he also shows that Mugabe has become an institution and has created a large enough cabal of dependencies that there exist reinforcing mechanisms maintaining his rule.

As I read the book, a few things struck me as strange — which is not to say that I doubt they were true, but simply that they deserve further exploration. For example, on so many occasions, after acts of unspeakable state-sponsored violence, citizens would attempt to contact the police, and then almost invariably find themselves frustrated with the lack of interest or results. Why, in such a system, would citizens even surmise that they might receive any action? Perhaps they still just hope that the state can function for them as a source of justice, and they simply need a place to register that they have been victimized.

On my brief stint to Zimbabwe, I was not even looking for evidence of state violence, and yet I found it. When visiting a small rural town in the Eastern part of the country, my colleague/host and I met with an NGO worker who trembled when recounting that the previous day he had unexpectedly been confronted with a small dose of the fear. He had been roughed up by a pair of “special police” for having helped to facilitate a play about political reconciliation. He described strange tactics, including the men later taking him for a beer. But he clearly feared for his life, worrying about whether or not they were trying to poison him, as he never saw the beer opened and wondered if they might have slipped something in the bottle. Undoubtedly, if the goal was to instill fear, the tactics had worked.

There is a bit of irony to the back page which refers readers to the author’s website for suggestions about how to “help the people of Zimbabwe.” That website provides a few links to some Zimbabwean NGO’s. After reading the book, my conclusion was that until Mugabe’s truly last day, not that much is going to make a difference. With reports of Mugabe’s ill health and long-overdue pressure from regional neighbors, maybe that day will come soon.

Tsvangirai and “Early” Elections in Zimbabwe

Virtually every credible observer agrees that Robert Mugabe robbed Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe’s presidency following the 2008 elections. And Tsvangirai almost surely maintains more popular support. But he is not calling for a quick re-match — on the contrary, he’s been threatening a boycott should elections be announced. Mugabe’s push for early presidential and parliamentary elections is almost evidence enough that he intends for them to be neither free nor fair. Reuters is reporting increased violence and crackdowns on political opposition. And when I was traveling in Zimbabwe in November citizens and human rights advocates were already concerned about the prospects of an election as they were not yet ready to jeopardize the relative calm they were experiencing. The difficult question now becomes, what will it actually take to create the right conditions for a fair election?

To be certain, the most powerful weapon Mugabe has used to maintain rule after three decades is Fear — the title of Peter Godwin’s excellent book, which I am just finishing and will review more fully in a post within the next week. At the moment, Zimbabwe is another hotspot that surely figures low on most foreign policy agendas at the moment given all the crises in other corners of the globe, and I wonder to what extent Mugabe is trying to capitalize on this opportunity. But the situation remains a huge concern for the Southern African region because instability is likely to fuel greater migration from Zimbabwe to neighboring countries — and those countries have not been feeling particularly hospitable in recent years, as evidenced most prominently by the spate of Xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Continued poor management of the “Zimbabwe crisis,” will also continue to look poorly on the South African government, which has been expected to play a lead role in managing the situation and has performed disastrously for years. Today, the New York Times reports on seemingly genuine expressions of pressure from Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Few places are more frustrating and depressing. Once the absolute great hope of Africa, Zimbabwe is today a hotbed of violence, tension, and failed infrastructure. And yet, during my brief trip, I met many incredibly smart and talented Zimbabweans and learned about many positive initiatives from the Harare mayor; and my plane from Johannesburg was packed with business people looking to explore possible opportunities. But is it possible to solve the humanitarian crises before resolving the political ones? Old dilemmas about sanctions pertain here: they surely place some real hurt on ordinary citizens who are the major victims of political conflict, but lift them before real political change and they may only  help Mugabe. Contemporary Zimbabwe is a bona fide quagmire. The other SADC countries really need to step up and help to hold Mugabe and his closest thugs accountable.