Kenya See What We Did There? The Old Disappearing Poll Trick

March 5, 2009

Raila Odinga (speaking) and Mwai Kibaki

Raila Odinga (speaking) and Mwai Kibaki

In early 2008, Kenya erupted into a spasm of violence that was attributed to ethnic tensions, but was actually the product of an electoral process that was manipulated by the United States for its own ends.

Perhaps 1,500 people died as militias from the Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups (generally loyal to opposition challenger Raila Odinga) clashed with Kikuyus (loyal to incumbent president Mwai Kibaki). This violence was frequently labelled “tribal,” not least by a certain Michael Ranneberger, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya. As people took to the streets in protest against election results which showed Kibaki to be the winner, despite his losing heavily in Parliamentary contests held at the same time, Ranneberger told the New York Times that “My biggest worry now is violence, which, let’s be honest, will be along tribal lines.”

With many people, including the EU observer mission in Kenya, claiming that thousands of votes had been illegally added to Kibaki’s total, the Hindu editorialized that “What is clear is that the presidential election was stolen in the counting and tallying process. Mr. Odinga’s demand that the President must admit the brazen fraud is wholly just and seems to imply one of two things: Mr. Kibaki must step down or the presidential election process should be gone through all over again.”

Neither thing happened. With the support of the U.S., which refused to condemn the elections, Kibaki and Odinga came to a “power sharing” agreement. Kibaki remained President, protecting his cosy relationship with Washington, for whom he has performed the role of regional mob boss admirably. Kibaki has allowed the U.S. to render terrorism suspects into Somalia and Ethiopia, and has offered his nation wholeheartedly to the rape of its northern neighbour.

Instead of “promoting democracy,” U.S. institutions at work in Kenya actually acted to promote U.S. interests. In doing so, either deliberately or not, organizations like USAID and the International Republican Institute, fomented violence between the supporters of the contending parties. The stakes were (and are) high in Kenya, where MPs earn over $10,000 per month if expenses are included. The spoils of office are, to put it bluntly, massive.

Throughout the crisis, the IRI behaved with impeccable dishonesty. On 2 January 2008, it stated in a press release that it “commended the people of Kenya for the manner in which Election Day was carried out” and argued that “There are now serious questions about the manner in which the vote tabulation was managed and it is clear that many Kenyans do not view the results as credible and that some of them have resorted to violence around the country.” Yet recent revelations from an investigation carried out by the New York Times belay this version of events.

It seems that the IRI actually suppressed opinion polls carried out by its staff during the elections which showed Raila Odinga well ahead of Mwai Kibaki. These numbers, if released promptly and with the IRI stamp of approval, could have prevented tensions rising to boiling point. Yet, according to Kenneth Flottmann, an IRI operative in Nairobi, “his supervisors said the poll numbers would be kept secret.”

The Times reported in January 2009 that it had consulted polling experts, none of whom could find fault with the poll. The reasons for its suppression were purely political. In the Times‘ words, “the decision was consistent with other American actions that seemed focused on preserving stability in Kenya, rather than determining the actual winner.” The State Department dull congratulated Kibaki, yet while violence flared it backtracked, although it still demanded neither a recount or the acceptance of an Odinga victory.

But who was the mastermind behind this cynical operation of political management (an operation that could hardly be further removed from “democracy promotion”)? As Flottmann told the Times, it was ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger who pulled the strings. Ranneberger had been seeking to suppress polls that were unfavorable towards Kibaki for months, and downplaying Odinga’s chances. And it was the same Ranneberger who expressed such concern about tribal violence, while knowing full well that it could have been staunched.

In addition, IRI board member Constance Berry Newman, presumably reflecting the wishes of her elevated colleagues, opposed “any kind of release from the outset — essentially suggesting it would be inflammatory and irresponsible.”

This, as it turned out, was jaw-droppingly off the mark. In fact, releasing the poll would have been the responsible thing to do – from a Kenyan perspective. But the IRI cannot be expected to take that view. It is, and always is, a tool of U.S. foreign policy, and acts behind the scenes of nations across the world to manage opinion, massage election results and give those candidates chosen by Washington the best possible chance of victory.

And the IRI continues to try to spin itself out of the mess created by the poll. In a response to the Times article, the IRI claimed that “Immediate poll results were unavailable to IRI because post-election violence in Kenya prevented data reaching Nairobi for almost three weeks after the balloting” and that “once the results did reach Nairobi on January 17, 2008, IRI and James Long, a Kenya-based polling consultant with the political science department at the University of California at San Diego, attempted to resolve discrepancies in the data.”

Yet Slate’s Alex Halperin was reporting as early as 2 January 2008 that The International Republican Institute, a democracy-fostering nonprofit funded by the U.S. government—and despite the name, officially nonpartisan—commissioned an Election Day exit poll but has declined to release the results.” Halperin had been told by “two people familiar with the results” that “they showed Odinga with a substantial lead over President Kibaki.”

This, Halperin concluded, meant that the IRI had “missed an opportunity to advance its mission of promoting democracy and fair elections” – and it has since missed many opportunities to apologize for doing so.

Constance Berry Newman, by the way, was also instrumental in “helping Colin Powell to determine” that “genocide” had occurred in Sudan’s Darfur region. That was her gig before warping Kenya’s electoral process, and we have to assume that she treated the numbers in that first instance with the same care and bias as she did in the latter. Darfur has seen many mortality estimates, from 10,000 dead to 300,000 plus – and the larger figure has been quoted by U.S.officials, despite its dubious origins. That is, however, another story. This one’s been bad enough.


One Response to “Kenya See What We Did There? The Old Disappearing Poll Trick”

  1. Watson Says:

    Liberian President Ellen Johnston Sirleaf called Africom “a model for the future: helping governments that are willing to help themselves.”

    I guess Odinga agreed to share power when it was pointed out to him that he would be one of those helping himself.

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