Leading Article: The Commonwealth fails Kenya

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Commonwealth may come to regret its deeply ambiguous verdict on last month's election in Kenya. The mandate of its observer group was clear: 'Its function is to ascertain whether, in its impartial judgement and in the context of those (Kenya's) laws, the elections have been free and fair.'

The group's verdict clumsily avoided making such a judgement. It read: 'Despite the fact that the whole electoral process cannot be given an unqualified rating as free and fair, the evolution of the process to polling day and the subsequent count was increasingly positive to a degree that we believe the results in many instances directly reflect, however imperfectly, the expression of the will of the people. It constitutes a giant step on the road to multi-party democracy.'

The details of its report, however, are the most damning a Commonwealth observer group has ever documented in an election. The government blocked the registration of between 1.5 and 3 million voters, kidnapped or detained opposition candidates to prevent them being nominated, appointed a judge dismissed for financial impropriety to run the Electoral Commission, used violence at opposition meetings and treated state radio, television and other government institutions as if they were party organs. One wonders what, in the eyes of the Commonwealth, would constitute an unfree and unfair election.

The disagreement within the observer group shows that not all the observers were prepared to tolerate electoral fraud and a sacked judge as the election ombudsman. But the Commonwealth's conclusion smells of political consideration as if the authors had averted their eyes from the evidence and instead pondered the question: 'What will happen to Kenya if we declare the election unfree and unfair?' In retrospect, it seems they believed that the very presence of 'eminent persons' from India, Jamaica, Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth countries would deter President Daniel arap Moi or his party apparatchiks from fiddling the election. They were wrong and their bluff was called. They were not prepared to cry foul.

The Commonwealth is seeking a new role and at its meeting in Harare in 1991 chose to concentrate on democracy to help its members to establish a new world order. It gave itself the mandate of helping emerging democracies. Its technical teams would assist in drawing up legislation and running elections, and its observer teams would provide impartial judgements on the conduct of those elections. Above all, it had to be above politics.

It is a difficult mandate. It is hard to hold an election in a huge country with poor roads and temperamental telephones where there are differing cultural attitudes to political leadership. But the evidence of recent elections in Africa has been that the continent thirsts for democracy and respects it. Every recent election in Africa has witnessed high polling, long lines of voters patiently waiting in the heat and, almost without exception, no violence. In Kenya, as in many other places, their patience was betrayed by corrupt and manipulative politicians. Outside observers must make allowances for physical difficulties and cultural differences but not for cheating. It is a fine distinction, but the Commonwealth is well placed to make it. On this occasion it appears to have rewarded the politicians, not the people.