Student monitors travel to Kenya to oversee voting in presidential election

Posted Friday 3:55 a.m. When he showed up at his local polling place in Kibera on the morning of Dec. 27, a dozen Yale students watched as Raila Odinga was turned away, informed by poll workers that his name did not appear on a registry of voters — even though the Kenyan opposition leader was locked in a tight battle for his country’s presidency.

The confusion surrounding Odinga’s voting status was soon cleared up, but as the Yalies — having flown to Nairobi three days earlier to serve as election monitors — discovered during their trip, it would not be the only instance of possible fraud in an election that has since sparked widespread violence between competing tribes jostling for control of the government.

Kenyan police confront rioters in Kibera — a slum of over one million
people — only a few days after peaceful elections were held throughout the country. A group of Yalies traveled to the African nation during winter break to help monitor the elections.
Kenyan police confront rioters in Kibera — a slum of over one million people — only a few days after peaceful elections were held throughout the country. A group of Yalies traveled to the African nation during winter break to help monitor the elections.

Now back on American soil, trip co-leader Shazan Jiwa ’09 said he feels both powerless and empowered — powerless to stop the violence in Kenya, but empowered by his time on the ground. Jiwa said he hopes the group’s trip will provide an educational opportunity for the rest of the Yale community. The University can affect real social change in Kenya by establishing partnerships within the country and launching new educational initiatives, he said.

“This was not going to be a one-shot deal — we were not just going to go there and just come back,” he said. “This trip is just the beginning rather than just the end.”

The aftermath of the election suggests forging such lasting ties with Kenya could be problematic.

“They believed so much in the power of a single vote,” co-leader Julie Carney ’08 said. “The fact that they [later] felt so betrayed by their own electoral process is difficult for us to witness.”

Although the polls opened at 6:00 a.m. on election day, many voters began lining up two hours early, and some even camped out overnight, students said. When the students arrived in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, they saw sprawling lines of Kenyan voters extending for miles.

Many Kenyans were initially excited when early returns projected Odinga’s victory over the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki. But as Kenya’s Electoral Commission delayed the release of official results, tension began to grip the city.

On Dec. 30, as the election results were being released and unrest was spreading across the country, six of the Yale students were already on a flight back to the United States. The three students who remained — Eliot Pence MA ’08, Frank Mokaya ’09 and Amandla Ooko-Ombaka ’10 —witnessed the ensuing violence firsthand.

A ‘guessing game’

After receiving training in workshops with Yale professors, the students flew to Nairobi on Dec. 23. On election day, students traveled together to different neighborhoods around Nairobi to watch as Kenyans cast their ballots. In serving as election monitors, the students were trained to look for irregularities in the election process, but above all to remain impartial.

Election monitoring is not new to Yale students.

In March 2007, a group of students traveled to Mauritania to serve as election monitors as power shifted from the military to a democratically elected leader, said Whitney Haring-Smith ’07, one of the trip’s organizers. The previous spring, a group of Yale students served as election monitors in El Salvador, in an election that was considerably more tense, he said.

Plans for the Kenya trip — which was led by Jiwa, Carney, Pence and Aniket Shah ’09 — have been in the works since the beginning of the school year. Although the election date was not set until late October, trip organizers were able to obtain accreditation from the U.S. Embassy and funding from the University without serious difficulty.

“It was almost like a guessing game,” Shah said. “We had to get funding from people while we didn’t actually know the date.”

Trip leaders had been establishing contacts at the U.S. Embassy and the Kenyan Electoral Commission since September.

The Kenya trip cost roughly $3,300 per student, according to documents provided to the News by trip leaders. The Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale matched the outside donations raised by student leaders, which came from the Yale International Relations Association, Berkeley College, Calhoun College, the Silliman College Master’s Office and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, as well as small contributions from each participant.

The students on the trip were selected from a larger pool of applicants by Assistant Political Science Professor Susan Hyde and Political Science Lecturer David Simon. Hyde, an election-monitoring expert, held briefings and acted as a “mentor” for students on the trip, Shah said, while Simon shared with them his expertise on Kenyan politics and culture.

Hyde said she briefed students on safety and media relations and trained them in methods of election observation. After going over the “Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation,” Hyde discussed with students the different types of irregularities they might encounter on the trip.

Election monitors fulfill many important roles, Hyde said, including acting as an external and impartial check on the election process. Election monitors can reduce election fraud directly and also serve as a deterrent to attempts at fraud, she said.

“What the Yale delegation did was short-term election monitoring,” she said. “They were contributing their observations to several organizations that were making a more comprehensive evaluation.”

Both short- and long-term election monitors serve important functions, said Lise Rakner, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Bergen in Norway.

“The short term missions are in my opinion of limited value on the ground, but their reports may be of importance in the follow-up stages,” Rakner said in an e-mail.

Selling himself to the poor

Widespread corruption, rapid economic growth and ethnic differences are key politics issues in Kenya’s fledgling democracy, Simon said. In the past decade, Kenya’s economy has seen tremendous expansion, but terrible poverty still characterizes many regions of the country. But while economic growth under Kibaki has been relatively strong, Simon said, the president was less successful at fulfilling one of his biggest campaign promises: cracking down on corruption.

“Corruption is still very high at the petty level and the high level,” he said. “There is a sense that government isn’t performing and isn’t doing the things it’s supposed to be doing.”

In an attempt to capitalize on these failings, Odinga has presented himself as the candidate of the poor.

“Odinga was promising a new future of Kenya,” Shah said. “Kibaki was promising continued economic growth and improving the prosperity of Kenyans.”

But Kenya’s class struggles are complicated by ethnic tension.

Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, which has produced all three presidents in Kenya’s 47-year history. Odinga, on the other hand, is a member of the Luo tribe, one of the three largest in all of Kenya. The current violence in Kenya has been cast along these ethnic terms, Simon said.

But although tribalism is still a potent force, the trip’s student leaders said, the Kenyan constitution prevents elections from being decided purely along tribal lines. In order to win, a candidate must receive at least 25 percent of the vote in at least five of the country’s eight provinces and must be elected to the parliament within his own province.

For this reason, candidates cannot simply fall back on tribal support and must establish a more far-reaching platform, although tribes can still dictate the results somewhat, Jiwa said.

Cowboy hats and brightly colored suits

The days leading up to the election were unusually quiet.

As Kenyans enjoyed the Christmas holiday, the Yale students on the trip began acclimating to their new environment. Three of the students stayed with a freelance journalist in Nairobi, while the other six students stayed with Kenyan families, Carney said. Much of the country seemed at a standstill, and between the Christmas holiday and the day off for the election, many shops remained closed, Shah said.

During the election, trip leaders chose to keep the group together in areas near the city for both safety and transportation reasons, beginning their work at 5:30 a.m. in Gigeri and then moving on to the Kenyan Westlands.

Although the polls were scheduled to open at 6 a.m., the first polling site the students observed did not open until 7:10 as the result of disorder — voters were required to line up in alphabetical order — and ballots and forms that arrived late, Jiwa said.

“A lot of the officers we talked to received the forms on short notice,” he explained.

Later in the morning, the group traveled to Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, where the student volunteers spotted Odinga, famous for wearing cowboy hats and brightly colored suits. The previously orderly line surged with excitement when Odinga arrived.

“People in Kibera look up to [Odinga] as a god,” Jiwa said.

Odinga’s name, like that of numerous other voters, had been left off the registration list — a mistake that Jiwa attributed to human error rather than government interference.

But Simon called the omission “amazing,” saying it suggested “pretty serious flaws in the electoral process.”

After spending the afternoon in Embakasi, where their drivers cast their ballots, and in the Eastlands area of Mathare, a poor region like Kibera, the group members returned to Kibera at about 5 p.m. While there, the Yale students witnessed a glaring irregularity.

“In one polling site, we saw a person assisting others with voting in an area he was not authorized to be in,” Jiwa said. “People were looking in and intimidating some of the voters.”

This incident aside, however, the students said the voting they witnessed mostly went off without any problems. The elections ran smoothly, and there was an overwhelming sense of excitement about the voting, which students said made the current violence seem all the more tragic and unexpected.

‘Doctored’ vote totals

For the next several days, shops were closed and many Kenyans were glued to their televisions.

Early reports made it appear that Odinga would sweep the election: several key members of Kibaki’s party had been voted out of the cabinet and Kibaki was trailing in the presidential balloting.

Then came the wait. Like much of the rest of Kenya, Yalies on the trip spent the following days watching press conferences held by the Kenyan Electoral Commission. But these events provided little real information.

“The Electoral Commission Kenya chairman [Samuel Kivuitu] was not making sense and was not being reassuring to voters,” Carney said. “It was interesting to watch all of this uncover slowly and also unravel.”

Arne Tostensen, a member of the European Electoral Observation Mission, told the News from Kenya that he believes the results of the election are unreliable.

“There is no doubt that results were ‘doctored’ in the transfer from the tally centres at the constituency level to the central level of the [Electoral Commission of Kenya] in Nairobi, although we don’t know the precise extent of the ‘doctoring’ and the magnitude of the inflation of the vote figures,” he said in an e-mail.

Tostensen said the votes in several constituencies had been altered, making Kibaki the victor.

“The chair of the Electoral Commission of Kenya has said he was under a lot of pressure to declare Kibaki the winner,” he said. “Five commissioners out of 21 have broken ranks and come out to state that irregularities were legion.”

Tostensen described the scene of one “bizarre” press conference held by the Kenyan leadership on Dec. 29. After banning an opposition rally in Uhuru Park, located in the center of Nairobi, earlier in the day, the government held an impromptu press conference across the street at the Intercontinental Hotel.

“[A]t one end of the pool the opposition was talking to international and domestic media about the serious political crisis in the country while tourists were sunbathing and splashing in the pool at the other end,” Tostensen said. “And across the street in Uhuru Park, hundreds of riot police with helmets and shields were on guard.”

The next morning, Dec. 30, most of the Yale group left for home. Later that day, the government officially declared Kibaki the winner of the election, setting off spurts of violence across the city.

“Once the results were released … at about 4:30 pm, billows of smoke could be seen from at least 6 places in Nairobi almost immediately,” Pence, one of three Yalies to stay behind, said in an e-mail on Tuesday.

Rioting followed. When the violence began, Pence said, it was disordered and scattered across the country, but it soon turned into more systematic tribal violence.

“Thousands of Kikuyus have left the western provinces, thousands have been displaced,” he said. “In Kibera, residents were dragged out of their houses, asked what their last name was (it is common for Luos to have last names that start with “O” or “A”) and robbed or assaulted.”

Both sides have called for peace, Pence said, but Kibaki continues to prevent any live media broadcasts and has policed the morgues — presumably to prevent the calculation of formal death tolls.

Students on the trip, who will deliver a presentation on their experiences on Jan. 20, hope their time in Kenya will help lead to greater institutional ties with Yale and more cultural exchanges. But for Carney, a bitter taste lingers in her mouth.

“It was really difficult to see polling stations that we had seen earlier up in flames,” she said.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    i'm glad that these yale students wanted to do something to help democracy triumph, but as far as i can tell, they accomplished nothing. yale paid for these students to go watch elections. but what were they monitoring? when they witnessed "irregularities," they were powerless to do anything.

    it does seem a bit egotistical for a group of college students to think that they can better monitor elections than the population of kenya.

  • Anonymous

    By the same logic used by Anon 1, the EU, US Embassy and all other monitorers and observers likewise accomplished nothing.

  • Anonymous

    I don't disagree with people who say that these 'observers' accomplished nothing, but the experience of going to a third-world country can sometimes steer these student's futures in a different direction - meaning that some of these students could, in the long run, become prominent contributors to international development. So to be fair, I wouldn't say that these types of short-term volunteer trips are a complete waste.

  • Anonymous

    the students on the election monitoring trip were WELL, if not TOO, aware of the their intellectual and practical limitations. they did the requisite carothers' reading, and understood that they were merely "tourists" to the "democratic" process. however, this should not detract from the educational benefits that they accrued on this trip. the students didn't delude themselves into thinking that they were saving democracy one yalie at a time. rather, they were able to note inconsistencies on the day of the voting, observations which could only help the u.s. embassy in its final report, and learn as political science students how democracy "works."

  • Anonymous

    I fully agree with the latest comments made on this article. The Electoral Commission of Kenya certified all 2,000 international observers on the basis of their accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr-el/2005/11/16967_en.pdf). I quote:

    "International election observation expresses the interest of the international community in the achievement of democratic elections, as part of democratic development, including respect for human rights and the rule of law. International election observation, which focuses on civil and political rights, is part of international human rights monitoring and must be conducted on the basis of the highest standards for impartiality concerning national political competitors and must be free from any bilateral or multilateral considerations that could conflict with impartiality. It assesses election processes in accordance with international principles for genuine democratic elections and domestic law, while recognizing that it is the people of a country who ultimately determine credibility and legitimacy of an election process".

    Based on the reflections given by the students in the article, it seems like their trip was in accordance with this declaration, and they achieved an awful lot in upholding these principles.