Kenya’s democracy and economy are both exhibiting strength and resilience despite the disruptions and dangers arising from the current electoral process, speakers at a Washington forum said on Friday.
“We have seen positive movement in Kenya’s democratic progression over the last decade and a half,” declared Johnnie Carson, a retired US ambassador to Kenya, who also held the top Africa post at the State Department during the first Obama administration.
He cited a series of reforms, including adoption of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of political decision-making and diminution of presidential power, a “decrease in electoral violence,” a growing willingness to take electoral disputes to court and “the emergence of a more independent and courageous judiciary.”
Mr Carson and the six other panellists taking part in a half-day “Spotlight on Kenya” conference at a Washington think-tank, also acknowledged that ongoing electoral uncertainties pose risks of political and economic destabilisation.
But Mr Carson offered reassurance that “democracy is messy, and Kenya’s is no exception.”
Dr Korir Sing’oei, legal adviser to Deputy President William Ruto, sounded some of the few discordant notes at an event characterised by polite consensus.
His critical comments aimed at Mr Raila Odinga contrasted with Mr Carson’s favourable remarks about the Nasa leader.
Mr Carson quoted Mr Odinga as having said in regard to the electoral process: “You can’t do the same thing the same way and expect different results.” The former envoy added: “You know something? He’s right.”
But Dr Sing’oei accused Mr Odinga of irresponsible behaviour. “The uncritical adulation of opposition leader Raila Odinga by the international community has made his conduct to lack any sense of proportionality,” Dr Sing’oei said.
He also criticised the Supreme Court ruling nullifying the August 8 election, saying it sets “a very worrying standard because democracy is essentially about the vote.” The court had acted on the basis of a technological failure in transmission of results while not rejecting the actual outcome recorded at polling stations, Dr Sing’oei noted.
“What this ruling has done is to make it almost impossible to deliver a credible election,” he warned.
“It is indeed feasible that there is the potential for endless petitions,” causing “chaos, confusion, anarchy,” Dr Sing’oei said. “At what point do we say enough is enough?”
John Tomaszewski, Africa director for the International Republican Institute, suggested that a ruling focused on an election process rather than on voting results themselves could have ramifications throughout Africa.
Mr Tomaszewski, whose organisation seeks to promote democratic norms outside the US, offered a negative appraisal of Kenyan media’s coverage of the August 8 voting.
“The media has to answer some questions,” he said, pointing to self-censorship prompted by pressure from political powers. “There is a need to have a brave media. There’s no excuse for voluntary blackouts of things that are going on,”
Mr Tomaszewski said in reference to disturbances that took place after the election which, he said, were reported and discussed on social media but not by the main media houses.
“The media need to do a better job of digging deep and not just reporting information it’s been fed,” he advised.
The performance of international election observers also came in for scrutiny at the conference, which was organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think-tank.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, an Africa specialist at the US Congressional Research Service, defended observers’ work.
Contrary to some media reports, none of the major observer delegations had actually declared the August 8 election “free and fair,” she said.
Monitors may not have spoken with sufficient clarity, she added. “A lot of soul-searching is going on in the international election observer community on how to do better,” Ms Ploch Blanchard said.
World Bank economist Kevin Carey offered a generally positive appraisal of Kenya’s economic record in recent years.
He described “an incredibly resilient economy” that performs well because it is broadly diversified.
But Mr Carey also warned of two major challenges that will face whoever becomes president.
He pointed to the urgent need for “fiscal consolidation,” saying that the budget deficit is now an “extremely high number” of eight per cent of GDP.
“This cannot go on forever,” Mr Carey cautioned. The government may have reached a limit on raising revenues as a means of reducing the deficit and may now have to implement spending cuts,” he suggested.
INTEREST RATE CAPS
Interest rate caps act as a drag on the economy, he added. Putting such limits in place “curtails the ability to charge interest rates they might need to compensate for risks,” Mr Carey said in reference to Kenyan lending institutions.
Lifting the caps, however, “won’t be easy for the incoming government,” he predicted.
A conference panel focused on the economy also addressed discrepancies between economic growth and local development in Kenya.
Speakers cited sharp regional contrasts between Nairobi, the Rift Valley and Mombasa on one hand and virtually the rest of the country on the other.
Mr Carey also called attention to the unresolved food crisis affecting millions of Kenyans. He further noted that an estimated one-third of the country’s population lives today in absolute poverty, defined by the World Bank as amounting to less than a $1.90 daily income.