Don’t let partisan prism obscure the real changes happening in Africa

Don’t let partisan prism obscure the real changes happening in Africa
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Ten years ago this December, the Bush administration, in which I served as assistant secretary of State for Africa, became increasingly concerned over an impending general election in Kenya. When a winner was declared by the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) — a state institution seen as lacking independence from the executive — with a margin of barely 100,000 votes, the runner-up decried fraud. A disastrous post-election violence ensued,followed by intervention from the International Criminal Court, further polarizing Kenyan politics. 

In 2007, Kenya’s institutions could not mediate the political dispute. Even the chairman of the electoral commission at one point declared he did not know who won the elections. It was then that the Bush administration gave support to a coalition government with President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Thankfully this has not been repeated.

In 2013, over 1 million votes separated the victor, Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, from his opponent, opposition leader Odinga. This August, in the first of two rematches Kenyatta led Odinga by 1.5 million votes. In the repeat vote on Oct. 26 — which Odinga successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to hold but then boycotted — Kenyatta was many millions ahead. 

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The 2013 and 2017 elections were held under entirely different state institutions than 2007, under the newly written and very popular 2010 constitution. The judiciary proved its independence this time, by determining numerous electoral petitions with final authority, exercised most dramatically by annulling the Aug. 8 election results and ordering a fresh election.

 

Even the much-maligned Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) carried out its mandate to conduct elections and declare a winner. The commission weathered constant attacks as incompetent and fraudulent, especially from the opposition party, despite having played a major role in selecting those same commissioners.

The differences in administration, result and adjudication of the 2017 elections and the contest a decade before could not be starker. Yet large sections of the international media determined this year’s contests as equally undecided as 2007, echoing claims of fraud by the opposition after both — missing entirely the more fundamental story of Kenya’s extraordinary institutional maturing in just 10 years, which is the very essence of democratic progress.  

Responsible journalists might rightly probe allegations of electoral fraud, or the impartiality of Kenya’s institutions charged with ensuring free and fair elections. However, to declare the outcomes of 2013 and 2017 equivalent to 2007 is to impugn those same institutions. This may be expected of partisans contesting elections, but it’s unacceptable for international media who claim their coverage is impartial and independent.

Unfortunately, African elections are too often reported internationally precisely through that partisan lens: opinions proffered not with analysis of fact but the indulgence of creative fiction. Africa is rarely recounted as a continent of great transition, where multi-party democracy flourishes and the rule of law is increasingly the norm, but as a land only of wildlife, despots and the persecuted — and of course, their western saviours. 

Through this prism, the Supreme Court of Kenya’s annulment of the election this August must be reported as an act of democracy. The ruling was based on faulty procedure in the IEBC’s electronic vote transmission, not the result. The calling of October’s fresh election can first be lauded but swiftly alleged an anti-democratic act of democracy, and the opposition’s boycott of that new election described an act of voting without voting — an impossible feat rather than straightforward abstention.    

Fortunately, facts are stubborn things to ignore forever. Events following October’s election have taken such a wild turn, it appears even the international media cannot but disturb the usual narrative. 

Heeding calls to not go ahead with it, including from within the opposition alliance, Odinga postponed, but has not cancelled, his own presidential counter-inauguration. Were this the aftermath of an election in a Western country it would be deemed wholly unconstitutional and nonsensical, ideas not given the time of day. Yet by seriously raising these propositions, the opposition coalition has produced the first discernible signs of change in global news opinion and reporting on this crucial political test for Africa. 

Kenya’s institutions have already played their role in the advancement of democracy. Democratic champions that preserve their legacy have to resist becoming hostage to their most ardent hard-line supporters advocating “burn it down” unlawful means to grab power. Gifted young statesmen who gain power constitutionally must move Africa toward a generational transformation by stamping out “winner takes all” corruption, building inclusive governments that deliver to all communities.

It remains to be seen whether the news focus on Kenya’s post-election development will revert to the comfort of cliché, or bear credible witness to the historic shifts taking place for democracy in Africa. This continent, where maturing multi-party democracy is simple fact, should expect to wait no longer for responsible reporting to match. 

Jendayi E. Frazer, Ph.D., is adjunct senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She served as the U.S. assistant secretary of State for African affairs from 2005 to 2009, and as special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 until her swearing-in as the first woman U.S. ambassador to South Africa in 2004. Frazer most recently was a visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. The author of and contributor to a number of articles, journals, and books, she is the co-editor of Preventing Electoral Violence in Africa(2011).