The election chaos in Kenya has made an eloquent case for UN involvement in elections likely to be rigged or lead to confusion. The UN has election machinery that has enabled it to successfully supervise, or be involved, in elections in such countries as East Timor, Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Haiti. So why not formalise it?
There was a time, two decades or so ago, when Kenya was so stable that most of the Western foreign correspondents who covered Africa were based there. From their comfortable apartments in the suburbs of Nairobi, they would dash off to “the Congo”, or Burundi, or any other country that offered an “Africa-is-burning” scenario, and file horror stories that made you ashamed to be called an African.
But newspapers in the US, London and Paris, began to cut down on expenses incurred covering Africa and most of the correspondents could no longer make too many forays into conflict areas. Yet the typical foreign correspondent’s ego is badly bruised if his or her byline is often absent from the copies of the paper posted by airmail from headquarters and there is thus nothing to display to colleagues when evening comes and the watering hole beckons. Some become so depressed that they stay at the watering hole later than usual, and even become quarrelsome and aggressive towards rivals, especially those whose organisations have enormous resources and are therefore able to continue financing journeys “abroad” (anywhere within 250 miles of Nairobi).
But you can’t keep a good foreign correspondent down, and in the course of things, many of their stories began to get written on the basis of rumours heard in the bar of the Nairobi Hilton hotel or the Kenyatta Centre. So much so that an imaginative friend of mine usually began his rumour-mongering stunts by saying: “Hey! Have you heard the latest Hilton?” With that, he would give you an ‘eye-witness’ account of the latest high society infidelity, or corrupt business ‘deal’, without batting an eyelid.
The Nairobi ‘Hiltons’ I have heard in my time include a story that Houphouet-Boigny once stole the girlfriend of his own son and had the young man flogged when he complained; that an Alhaji who is a president, flies in a Boeing 707 full of designer clothes for himself every year, with beautiful Paris models who provide the background for photographic sessions where it is determined what designs go well with him; and that ‘Emperor’ Jean-Bedel Bokassa wept like a child, muttering the words ‘Ah, Mon General!’ over and over again when President Charles de Gaulle of France died.
I was thinking about this one day when I was having a drink at the Nairobi Hilton with some university lecturers, when we were joined by two ladies. The guys welcomed them nicely so I assumed that they knew them and I included them whenever I ordered drinks. We talked and laughed, late into the night.
Then, without warning, one of the ladies put her arms around yours truly and kissed him full on the lips. This was a severe shock, for in yours truly’s part of the world, women were not so bold with men but left romance to be initiated by the men! I was still trying to recover from the shock when more trouble beckoned. The other woman began to rain insults at the one who had kissed me: “You old bag (she said) why don’t you leave us young ones to have our chance? Haven’t you had enough men?” You know where this is going, don’t you?”
Well, I wasn’t about to find out. I got up and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I raced into the lift and within minutes was in my room, which I locked after putting the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door. I am sure my Nairobi friends still consider me as “one of those men who are afraid of women”.
OK, what I really want to tell you is that Kenya was – and still is – a very “liberal” place with loads of attractions for those who are inclined to enjoy such things. You take a taxi from Nairobi and drive for 30 minutes or so and you come to a game park where you can see good old “simba” (lion) strolling about in his natural environment, as if Adam and Eve had never quarrelled with their maker about fruit-plucking rights.
You drive on the road that goes to Dar-es-Salaam and all of a sudden, you see a herd of giraffes in front of the car, cantering along with their bottoms moving up and down in a primeval ballet choreographed from heaven itself. I never tire of remarking that if you’re a meat-eater, there’s hardly a place to beat Nairobi restaurants in the variety of meat served and the different styles of cooking it.
One restaurant unashamedly calls itself the “Carnivore!” They roast the meat and pass it round on spits, and you let them cut as much as you like for you. A friend with whom I once had dinner at the restaurant was given so much meat that he fell asleep eating it. But he loved meat and wouldn’t let them take it away. Each time he woke up, he continued masticating from where he’d left off, till he eventually finished the lot.
And now, the beautiful people of Kenya are at one another’s throats. The terrible pictures of dead bodies and burnt property that have been coming out of there since the election of 27 December make one wonder whether democracy is worth such carnage. The trouble, however, is that dictatorship and military rule, the alternatives to democracy, also bring carnage in their wake, while offering none of the advantages that are enjoyed in a democracy. So the question should not be whether democracy is worth it but how democracy can be achieved without the election rigging that often threatens to bring national disintegration.
In the Kenya case, the rigging of the election was quite blatant. Before the election, the opposition had been calling for an Act of Parliament implementing an “Inter-Party Parliamentary Group” recommendation that members of the Electoral Commission should be appointed after cross-party consultations. This did not happen. Yet the Commission‘s chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, had himself warned publicly that “when people are appointed [to the Commission] without statutory guidelines, we can have thieves and people without integrity at the Commission”. In spite of such statements, however, Kivuitu behaved on election night like a party hack anxious to declare Mwai Kibaki the winner and have him sworn in as president within an hour.
In order for people who want to cling to power not to be able to rig elections, it is necessary to insulate the election process totally from local political influences. For, again and again, we see nations brought to the brink of destruction by disputed elections. In Africa, the most spectacular case has been that of Côte d’Ivoire, where General Robert Guei, declared himself winner of an election in 2000 and thereby plunged the country into a civil war from which it is still recovering.
Of course, it isn’t only African countries that suffer from what might be called “terminal electionitis”. Many of the new countries forged out of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, also suffer from rigged elections. Even the “bastion of democracy”, the United States, can find its political foundations rocked by bitter disputes over “pregnant chads”. Isn’t it time to hand elections likely to result in disputes over to a specially-created squad of the United Nations?
It is true that the UN has many failures. But never have I heard it said that a UN-supervised election was rigged. In 1956, for instance, the UN held a plebiscite to determine the future of the UN Trusteeship over what was then called Trans-Volta Togoland, a strip of land wedged between soon-to-be-independent Ghana and the French colony of Togo.
There were very strong feelings over whether the people whose homeland had been divided by colonialism should be reunited or allowed to stay where they were. The majority of the people opted to join Ghana into independence. This aroused ethnic antagonisms, but because the UN plebiscite had been squeaky-clean, the majority decision was respected.
The UN has election machinery that has enabled it to successfully supervise, or be involved, in elections in such countries as East Timor, Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Haiti. The UN therefore has the experience. What is lacking is a formal, collective recognition, by UN members that elections are a lethal threat to lives in some countries, and that elections should therefore be viewed with the same seriousness as threats to international peace.
A UN elections squad, if established, would be put into operation when a party or parties to an election that was likely to bring about a disputed result, applied to the Security Council for assistance to run the election. Getting the Security Council to agree would not be easy, for a party bent on rigging an election would not welcome UN “interference” in its affairs. It would try and find a permanent member to lobby, who would veto the proposal.
But once the Security Council had agreed that without UN involvement, many people would be killed in the country, the Council should exert all the pressure it can to be allowed to send the UN squad in. For instance, all UN members could refuse a country aid that defied the Security Council. The World Bank and the IMF would also be asked to do the same. (By the way, these two financial institutions could be asked to contribute to the UN “elections fund” – after all, they’ve been concerning themselves very much with “good governance” of late.)
Such a system would, of course, undercut the “sovereignty” of the country concerned. But if it were possible to ask the people who have lost their lives in Kenya or in Côte d’Ivoire whether they would much rather be alive in a country with diminished sovereignty than be dead in one with its sovereignty intact, their answer would be obvious. Since the dead cannot talk, it is mandatory for UN members to speak – and act – on their behalf.