Crisis in Kenya

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

KENYA APPEARED close over the weekend to successfully completing a groundbreaking democratic election that would have, for the first time, forced an incumbent president to leave office. Instead, eleventh-hour manipulations by President Mwai Kibaki and his ruling party have robbed the vote of credibility and plunged the country into near-chaos. By late yesterday, news services reported that more than 135 people had been killed in rioting, much of it involving fighting between members of Mr. Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and the rival Luo group, which backed opposition candidate Raila Odinga. The Associated Press said that police had been ordered to shoot to kill to disperse mass demonstrations.

The violent backlash by Mr. Odinga's supporters was indefensible. But most of the blame for the crisis should fall on Mr. Kibaki, 76, who has been a good steward of the Kenyan economy but apparently balked at the prospect that he would be voted out of office. Mr. Odinga, a populist, led in most preelection polls; a day after Thursday's vote he had amassed a large lead in initial counting, even as more than half of Mr. Kibaki's cabinet was defeated in parliamentary voting. Mr. Odinga's party captured about 100 parliamentary seats, three times the number of the ruling party. A classic opposition landslide appeared to be underway.

Then, on Saturday, voting tallies were mysteriously delayed in parts of Kenya where Mr. Kibaki is more popular. When they finally came in, some reported improbably high turnout or totals of votes that had inflated by tens of thousands in a matter of hours, all in the president's favor. On Sunday, Kenya's electoral commission rejected proposals for a recount and proclaimed Mr. Kibaki the winner by a narrow margin. He promptly had himself sworn in for a new term, banned live television and radio broadcasts, and vowed to put down unrest by force.

Mr. Kibaki's actions threaten to reverse all the progress Kenya has made since he replaced longtime strongman Daniel arap Moi five years ago. The European Union's chief observer has said the vote count lacks credibility; after initially endorsing the election commission's decision, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi also cited "serious problems." Yesterday four members of the commission issued a statement saying information they received "casts doubt on the veracity of the figures." The commissioners spoke of initiating a judicial process, but that could take months or even years. What's really needed is a quick and credible recount of the votes, with the participation of international monitors. The Bush administration and other Western governments should be pressing Mr. Kibaki to accept that solution.

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