What’s Really Going On in Kenya?

And why didn’t a U.S.-funded group release its exit-poll data?

Kenyans protest the elections

NAIROBI, Kenya—In fixing elections, appearances matter. If the officials seem plodding and deliberate or, in the case of dictatorships, brazen and brutal, they can assure themselves of victory. The ethnic violence currently convulsing Kenya springs from a spectacularly inept switch from one approach to the other.

The voting in the Dec. 27 presidential and parliamentary elections generally met the election-observer benchmark of “free and fair,” at least by the depressing standards of voting in Africa. On Election Day, I followed a Kenyan election observer—and proud supporter of opposition candidate Raila Odinga—through Nairobi’s massive Kibera slum, which Odinga represents in Parliament. Walking down crooked dirt paths past empty kiosks patched together from scrap metal, mud, and wood, it wasn’t hard to detect irregularities.

At a polling place consisting of tents on a soccer field, a crowd of mainly opposition supporters had encountered long delays in their attempts to vote. People approached the observer, complaining that their name hadn’t appeared on the voting rolls. Multiply these incidents across a poor country twice the size of Nevada, and a fair election seems about as likely as those gentle Iowa caucus-goers coming to blows over their preferred candidates.

Like Odinga and Barack Obama’s father, the election observer was from the Luo tribe. With dozens of tribes in Kenya, ethnicity takes precedence over “issues” in voting. No candidate runs on a pro-corruption, anti-development platform. No one disagrees about Kenya needing flatter roads, better hospitals, and more jobs. Divisive, culture-war-type issues played hardly any role in the campaign. And with the candidates’ promises to develop Kenya too vague for scrutiny, people sensibly vote for the party they think will send them the spoils of office.

By Friday, the day after the election, several powerful members of the ruling party had lost their seats in Parliament, and the opposition led the presidential tally. Officials read off the vote count in live proceedings mesmerizing in their dullness. It appeared that President Mwai Kibaki had overseen a commendable election.

The ruling party, Kibaki’s Party of National Unity, which has strong support in the large and relatively wealthy Kikuyu tribe, apparently either didn’t like the way things were trending or got nervous. By Saturday, President Kibaki was implausibly catching up in the polls. The delay in announcing a winner had already sparked sometimes-violent protests across the country, mainly by suspicious Odinga supporters.

On Sunday afternoon, Samuel Kivuitu, the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, declared Kibaki and was jeered out of the unruly hall. Within an hour, the president was re-inaugurated in a shotgun ceremony capped by a maladroit inaugural address. As rioters began trashing cities and slums across the country, Kibaki, a 76-year-old economist with a stiff paternal manner, declared, “The freedom of choice, the openness and integrity of the electoral process, and the peaceful manner in which we conducted ourselves as people has raised Kenya’s democratic profile throughout the world.”

In the questionable interest of public safety, live TV coverage was suspended nationwide, and there were numerous reports of police shooting protestors. Hundreds have died, and one report said 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes, disrupting life in what every single newspaper and wire story has called one of the most stable countries in Africa. Most notoriously, a mob  torched a church in Eldoret, killing dozens of Kikuyus trapped inside.

The U.S. State Department congratulated the incumbent in an embarrassing and quickly rescinded statement, even as other groups condemned abnormalities in the vote-counting process. Since then, the calls of fraud have grown louder, and the electoral commission’s Kivuitu admitted that he called the election under pressure from the ruling party.

According to the official numbers, Kibaki won the election by more than 200,000 votes, about 2 percent of the total cast. While there have been calls for recounts, divining the true winner with both sides and many observer organizations condemning improprieties such as doctored vote tallies will be expensive, complicated, and not guaranteed to succeed. Potential moderators have floated ideas about a power-sharing agreement. None of these proposals has the authority of a crisp vote but could help restore stability. The ruling party’s mismanagement of the election doesn’t rule out the possibility that it, in fact, won. Even if it didn’t, the margin may have been too small to determine.

Unfortunately, one bit of data has not surfaced. 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. Two people familiar with the results told me that they showed Odinga with a substantial lead over President Kibaki—one reported eight points, the other nine points. One has only to remember the United States’$2 2004 elections to know how fallible exit polls are, but a U.S.-sponsored survey would have weight here and could have given the ECK pause before it called the election so disastrously.

Ken Flottman, an official in the IRI’s Nairobi office, said the data would serve additional purposes, such as studying voter demographics. The organization issued a statement criticizing the vote counting but does not mention its data. It  missed an opportunity to advance its mission of promoting democracy and fair elections.

On Jan. 2, the first business day after the election, parts of Nairobi appeared to be getting back to normal, despite the heavy security presence. An up-market shopping center near my apartment was packed, including the local Java House, Kenya’s superior answer to Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Kibaki’s government accused Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement of inciting genocide. Some parts of the country were suffering from gas shortages, as was neighboring Uganda, where some Kenyans have fled. Odinga has called for a million-man protest on Thursday, amid fears of continuing violence. My sunny driver expects to see the riots cool. The rioters have no money, he said accurately. “They will get hungry.”