Nairobi – Day One

[note: in keeping with the need to respect radio silence until The Carter Center STO mission is over, I’m putting these posts up in sequence, with a one week delay from realtime.]

First day of briefings, reviewing the situation, as Fagin would say. The Carter Center team gives us the rundown on getting to and around our Area of Responsibility (Pedro – operations), fulfilling our legal function (Mariusz – code of conduct) while not getting injured, kidnapped or killed (Steven – security). As with any election in most parts of the world, there are things to be concerned with in each of these aspects, but it’s nothing these folks haven’t seen before. Last night over dinner, we got to swap stories about the observation missions to Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, and the DRC. You know how I sometimes say that I’m surprised when people have better travel stories than I do? Welcome to the bigtime, kid.

Compared with a lot of places, Kenya’s pretty straightforward: the government and populace responded remarkably well to the aftermath of the 2007 election, creating a new constitution that strengthened the judiciary and devolved more executive power to the districts. There’s also more transparency: the electoral commission is now an independent body rather than a branch of the president’s office. On a continent where there’s an unnerving habit of seated presidents deciding that they’re still not quite ready to leave office, this one step goes a long way.

But there’s still plenty of opportunity for things to come off the rails – the recent New York Times article does a good job of summarizing a few of them. There are genuine land conflicts, and political leaders at all levels seem to be exploiting them for personal political gain. Each telling their followers to remember (and implicitly, avenge) the exaggerated and often mis-represented wrongs done by their rival’s ethnic group. It’s working remarkably well, especially in rural areas. Villages burned, once-friendly neighbors terrorized and driven away, if not killed.

What’s especially disheartening about it is the fluidity of the charges and alliances. Former rival candidates have allied in this election, so ethnic groups incited against each other in 2007 have been convinced that – surprise, surprise – their grievances are not with each other, but with a third ethnic group, only coincidentally that of the political alliance’s new rival candidate.

Today we also met our new partners. In spite of the teasing that having survived Nimba County during the Liberian election makes me a veteran, I’m relieved that my partner really is a seasoned observer. Oley is a dynamic young woman from the Gambia, living these days in Cote D’Ivoire. This is something like her fifth mission in four years, and from her stories (yes, they’re better than mine) I don’t feel an enormous degree of disappointment that our assignment isn’t somewhere like Tana River, or the Somali border. No, we’re going to be observing election procedures in the Westlands, Nairobi’s answer to Beverly Hills. Mind you, if political unrest turns into class warfare, or if Al Shabab decides to come to the party, Westlands is a plausible target of opportunity, but analysis suggests that we’ve been handed a velvet rope assignment. While Ahna, Tiago, Shebora and the others are enduring long drives over rutted dirt roads to villages in the middle of nowhere, Oley and I are going to be patrolling restaurant row.

Yes, mom – we’re still going to be vigilant, but at the moment, the biggest challenge will be not mortifying Oley with my hiking-boots-and-cargo-pants lack of fashion planning.

“You didn’t bring a canvas hat, did you?” Pause. “Oh god – you did, didn’t you?”

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