Sometime in late 2008, long after the fires of the 2007-08 post-election violence had been extinguished, I was having a cup of tea with a diplomat who was about to leave Kenya as his tour of duty here had ended.
Looking back on his time here, he told me that what to him was the biggest change was not the economic revival which was so visible at that time. Not the new roads and greatly improved water and electricity supply but rather the complete collapse of Kenya’s reputation as “a haven of peace in one of the world’s toughest neighbourhoods” as one foreign commentator had memorably remarked.
He told me that back in early 2007, when plans were being made for the usual “observer missions” from the European Union, the US and Canada and from the African Union, some of the top diplomats serving in Kenya at that time had made plain their conviction that it was a complete waste of money to field a full-strength observer mission in Kenya.
And our history, up to that point, seemed to validate such an opinion. For in 2002, under retired President Daniel Moi, Kenya had seen the presidential candidate supported by the political establishment of the day, one Uhuru Kenyatta, buried in a landslide by the opposition leader Mwai Kibaki. And Moi had gracefully conceded this defeat of his chosen heir, and handed over power to Kibaki.
Then in 2005, there was a referendum on the proposed new constitution of that year, fully supported by the government of President Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of a group of “rebels” from within his own Cabinet, led by his Minister for Roads, Raila Odinga. And Kibaki too gracefully acknowledged this defeat. Mind you, he then dismissed all those Cabinet ministers who had opposed the proposed Constitution. But that was routine politics. The bigger point is that there had been a free and transparent electoral process in 2005 — just as there had been in 2002 — and the will of Kenyans had prevailed, even if this deeply humiliated the President of the day.
So come 2007, such was Kenya’s reputation for holding credible elections, any comprehensive election observation process — which in an African nation usually means an effort to detect likely election fraud — was considered superfluous.
And my diplomat friend told me that he personally suspected that the only reason why the donor community eventually fielded a full-strength election observer mission was that many of those observers were people who had some knowledge of the country. These men and women, my friend speculated, knew very well how easy (and inexpensive) it would be to go for a one-week safari following the elections, once you were in Kenya. And so they insisted on a full-strength observer mission as a way to achieve the secretly desired end of visiting the Masai Mara.
Of course, when the tallying had been done and President Kibaki declared the winner, what these distinguished men and women of the various observer missions found is that far from being able to gleefully head out to the wide open spaces of Kenyan game parks and conservancies, they were stuck in Nairobi, as all around them the chaos of the post-election violence raged. The odd thing is, we have since then had one more referendum on a proposed Constitution, in 2010, and another presidential election, in 2013, both of which were as peaceful as you could ask.
And yet we have not lost our reputation as a place to be wary of, if there is a presidential election around the corner. And as such, both inside the country and outside, there is deep uneasiness over what the 2017 election will bring.
That is the price we have to pay for being “the economic fulcrum of the East Africa region”, I suppose. The world expected a trouble-free, credible, free and fair election from us back in 2007. And what we gave the world was the Kiambaa Church massacre, and the Naivasha revenge attacks. These spectacles of election-related violence will never be forgotten.