Looking back on my role as an observer of the 2007 election, and its bloody aftermath, there are many emotions triggered by the tragedy, as for anyone involved.
Nonetheless, in the hard light of day five years later, I have tried to distill some specific learning that could be of practical application as Kenya faces another uncertain election.
For me, the key point in hindsight is the degree to which all, or at least most of us, who were involved in providing outside support for the democratic process, from the international community, and perhaps in fairness too in much of the media and in Kenyan civil society, hid from the reality of how dangerous the situation was.
We ended up giving each other false reassurance, and in turn perhaps giving false hope to Kenyan voters. Or at least contributing to complacency that helped no one except those engaging in rigging and violence.
Looking back there was simply too much euphemism and too little candor. Too much wishful thinking and rationalization. Let us start with the very basics of the election process as it shaped up in the later months of 2007.
Kenya had experienced one relatively successful election in 2002, but the situation of an incumbent president running for re-election himself in 2007 was clearly different.
The NARC coalition that had won a landslide was long dead. The polls showed the 2007 race was always relatively close, with the opposition leading for the last few months but not pulling away.
In that environment, what excuse can be made for the incumbent to unilaterally appoint a new majority to the ECK in just weeks before the vote, turning his back on what had been agreed to even by Moi in 1997 to provide for opposition balance on the Commission?
And how can we justify in retrospect the credence given to the hope that somehow one man, the irascible Samuel Kivuitu (ECK Chair) would somehow save the day?
The reality is that no one individual electoral commissioner, even the chairman, could control the ECK, even if he did his very best. This was not a secret or even hidden.
A member of parliament who had run for re-election on the PNU ticket told me afterwards, during the post-election crisis, that once the President made the unilateral appointments turning over the ECK membership, the politicians on both sides knew it would be a free-for-all and moved out to rig in their respective local strongholds. Why did we not see?
Likewise, we all saw in the media that various politicians or their supporters were caught red-handed buying voting cards and engaging in such malpractices in the months before the elections.
We heard Kivuitu or others in the government bluster occasionally about accountability, but we also saw that nothing actually happened. We saw the misuse of state resources and irregular financial transactions. Somehow we still did not fully shake off the cobwebs and wake up to what this meant.
From documents from the US State Department I received last year from a Freedom of Information Act request I learned that by September 2007, well before the unilateral turnover on the ECK, staff at my Embassy had indentified that there was a real risk that the ECK could fail to deliver a credible election and that contingency plans were to be drawn up to address what should be done if such a failure happened.
Unfortunately, I never have seen an indication that such plans were referred to or implemented later. Nothing of this sort was suggested to me in discussing with the Embassy my organization’s plans for observing the election.
As the challenges got objectively worse over time, and the opportunity to fix any of them ran out, our Ambassador instead publicly predicted in the Kenyan media a “free and fair election” the week before the vote. By that time, I was privately worried enough to be upset and complain internally, but this accomplished nothing and I did not on my own speak out differently.
I have no problem with trying to be 'optimistic' and 'positive' to inspire people to hope and do their best, but that is something different than selling a false hope of something that is imagined rather than real.
Anyone who genuinely wants to “help” the Kenyan people navigating the dangerous business of the competition for political power needs to plan rather than dream.
Anyone who wants to support objectively the democratic process as the means to decide this struggle peacefully needs to be committed to candid truth—anything less hurts rather than helps.
I know from having lived through the post-election violence with my family, in a Kenyan neighborhood, and with some people who were displaced staying with us, that most Kenyans, the vast majority, no matter what they thought or how disappointed they were in what happened with the election, did not seek to harm their neighbors as a result.
The Kenyan people as a whole expressed themselves peacefully at the ballot box—the violence became what it was because it served the interests of political combatants on both sides, while most Kenyans tried to live through it.
To me, the key thing that both election observers and international powers can do that can really matter is to commit themselves persuasively to stand by the Kenyan voters "thick or thin” to obtain and preserve the best election that is really possible now and admit and address whatever problems arise in a patient and persistent manner.
The 'silver bullet' of 'power sharing' with the disclaiming of the ability to know who won has been fired. There will be some serious problems in this election undoubtedly; none of us who are not planning to instigate such problems know how bad they might be. Truth and patience are the best tools to work through them.