East Africa: African Union and Comesa Deploy Observers, Kenyan Elections Face External Challenge

The former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, is heading the African Union observer mission to the Kenyan elections, while the other key observer mission is headed by a retired judge from Zimbabwe.

Ambassador Simbi Mubako, a former justice minister and High Court judge, is head of the mission of about 20 senior officials sent by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to observe the general elections on 4 March.

He is also a member of the COMESA Committee of Elders that undertook a pre-election mission to Kenya in January to observe preparations for the presidential, parliamentary and local elections.

Although he declined to comment before the mission, Ambassador Mubako made reference to the Committee's briefing of the AU Peace and Security Council, together with the AU Panel of the Wise, on 13 February, and other public statements.

As part of African efforts to promote democratic processes on the continent, the AU and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have been sending observer missions to member states holding general elections to "allow us to ensure that everything is in order for a smooth, transparent and credible election."

This is the first election under a new Constitution, and the politics have overshadowed debate on economic and social issues and policy platforms. The previous elections in 2007 were marred by violence in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives.

The pre-election mission made a field trip to Nakuru, in the Rift Valley province, and met key stakeholders in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, including presidential aspirants and heads of key state institutions, as well as non-state actors and UN agencies.

Issues raised by the various stakeholders included security and the potential for violence, civic and voter education, role of the media, issues around the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of one of the most popular presidential candidates and the potential for conflict as a result of this, the responsibility of political parties to maintain order within their constituencies, and the influence of unregulated opinion polls ahead of elections.

The pre-election mission noted that there remains a potential for localized violence as each of the parties and coalitions expects to win the elections, and if any wins in the first round with a small margin, this could trigger public protests fanned by the unregulated opinion polls trying to shape and tilt public opinion.

If the election proceeds to a second round, it would coincide with the commencement of the ICC trials, seen by many voters and supporters as a deliberate attempt to interfere with the election results, and the mission recommended that the ICC dates should be postponed to avoid triggering nation-wide unrest.

Among the recommendations is that the AU and COMESA should be "materially ready to provide immediate mediation (good offices) support, should the need arise", and should act promptly. The mission also proposed that general consideration should be given to the establishment of national institutions in member states to help with mediation at national level, citing the example of the National Peace Council in Ghana.

Meanwhile, former president Chissano, the leader of the 60-member AU observer mission, has praised the preparations put in place by Kenya's electoral commission.

"We are relieved the find that the election preparations are complete and are spearheaded by competent officials," Chissano said in Nairobi. "This has given us confidence that the elections will be well conducted."

However, he cautioned that "things can still go wrong and so everyone should recommit every day to ensure that elections are conducted in a free and fair manner."

A British newspaper, The Independent, has said that the elections have caused "major consternation in London amid fear that the outcome may unravel key British strategy in east Africa."

The well-respected daily newspaper says that if the current Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, wins the election, "British interests are secure, but if Uhuru Kenyatta wins."

The two are running neck-and-neck in pre-election polls. Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, have been indicted by the ICC and are expected to appear in court in early April, which coincides with the swearing in of the Kenyan president on 10 April.

Both men say they are innocent and willing to face justice as they expect to be cleared by the court, but the UK government has said it would limit contact with any government led by them, causing their supporters to protest at interference in the electoral process.

"If Kenyans do vote for us," Kenyatta said, "it will mean they themselves have questioned the process that has landed us at the ICC."

He warned that any sanctions or cutting of trade by the UK would result in the Kenyan government turning to other international partners, such as India and China.

Trade between the two countries was one billion pounds last year, and the UK was the largest single foreign investor with projects totalling two billion pounds involving about 70 British companies.

When the British High Commissioner stated publicly his government's unwillingness to deal with Kenyatta, the latter replied that, "In actual fact, the negative impact is on the British. Kenyans are showing that they are not keen on foreigners telling them what to do, so his remarks helped us out."

One prominent analyst, Peter Cheboi, warned of a possible backlash against Europeans, reminding that "almost six million acres of land in our country is still owned by people of British extraction" and "British firms make a huge profit from trading in Kenya."

Kenyatta is the son of the of the first leader of independent Kenya and "father of the nation", Jomo Kenyatta, who was president for a decade following independence in 1963 after his Kenyan African National Union won the first democratic elections in which all voters were allowed to participate.

The elder Kenyatta, the son of Kikuyu farmers and educated at the London School of Economics, demanded a voice for Africans and he was sent to prison during the Mau Mau struggle for land that began in 1952.

The Berlin conference in 1885, in which European countries arbitrarily divided up Africa among themselves, designated 250,000 square miles from the Indian Ocean to beyond Lake Victoria as British East Africa, which later gained independence as Kenya and Uganda.

Kenya gained independence almost 50 years ago, on 12 December 1963, and Uhuru Kenyatta's coalition for the current elections has taken its name from that commemoration, as the Jubilee Alliance.

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