Kenya: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Overreaction?

On March 4, Kenya held general elections, and nearly no one was killed. That might not sound like a big deal, but lots of smart people had been warning for months that these elections put Kenya at high risk of mass atrocities.

Assuming Kenya stays the course and completes the current election cycle without large-scale violence, the big question for people concerned about atrocities prevention is this: Did all the scrutiny and alarm help to prevent violence that would otherwise have occurred, or did we collectively overreact to the surprise of early 2008 and cry “Wolf!” when none was near?

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

I emailed this question to Ken Opalo, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who’s from Kenya and was there to analyze and vote in the elections, and he offered a favorable assessment of the many preventive efforts. “I think the peace crusade actually helped prevent violence by constantly reminding us of the cost of violence,” he said. Ken also credited the Kenyan media for choosing not to air inflammatory political statements and the government for blocking the dissemination of hate speech via short message service (SMS), an important channel of communication . Last but not least, Ken argued that the dynamics of the presidential campaign also played a role. “It also helps,” he wrote, “that one of the most volatile regions in the country—the central Rift Valley—this time round found peace in the political union between [eventual winner Uhuru] Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto (bringing together Kikuyus and Kalenjins).”

Kenyan columnist Charles Onyago-Obbo also believes that reactions to the  helped to avert violence that might have been. In a column entitled “Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk,” he acknowledges that peace campaigns by social groups and the media may have helped at the margins, but he sees the biggest effects coming from sticks and carrots deployed by the Kenyan government. Like Opalo, he credits authorities’ crackdown on hate speech, but he also believes that visible investments in major infrastructural projects in some key regions also had a significant effect.

If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.

International actors are also claiming some credit. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, told the Associated Press that the prosecutions he pursued after 2008 “were game-changers that helped prevent a repeat of the deadly rampages following this month’s vote.” Moreno-Ocampo saw his office as an instrument of deterrence, and in this case, he believes it worked.

I emailed Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University senior who is both a student and advocate of atrocities prevention, to ask him how influential the ICC indictments had been. He agreed with Ocampo that they had some effect, but he described that effect as indirect:

I don’t think there was a substantial risk of violence by Kenyatta’s close affiliates, or by [second-place finisher Raila] Odinga’s: if you look at the financial and political incentives for national-level officials, many are linked to international investments in Kenya’s economy, or to aid flows by Western donor states. This is probably less the case for [members of parliament] who weren’t as internationally prominent, and those are often the officials with the most direct links to paramilitary forces and civilian militias.

As a result, I think we can differentiate between a couple of dynamics, each of which had a unique function in the context of violence prevention: the intergovernmental preparation, which was both public at a national level (high-level diplomatic statements, threats of consequences for violence) and “behind-the-scenes”; and the non-governmental preparation, which was both public at the national level (statements about the ICC, human rights reporting) and “behind-the-scenes” at a local level (it’s hard to assess whether this was marginal, or structurally important). In one sense, it’s hard to draw a hard line between the two, but I’m not sure the non-governmental commentary would have been influential in changing those local MP incentives without an active intergovernmental process behind the scenes.

tl; dr: We were probably crying wolf where the ICC indictees were concerned (notice how that was always included in press coverage, as if that implies something about anticipated behavior), but I think that process—call it discursive, but there was also tangible diplomacy to back that up—helped diffuse the incentives for violence prevention at more local levels of governance/mobilization.

Personally, I also see the Kenyan elections as a success for atrocities prevention. Large-scale violence was a plausible threat; many efforts were undertaken to prevent that violence; and then it didn’t happen. We can’t say with confident exactly which effort contributed how much, but the risk was real, and the interventions that were undertaken were relatively cheap.

Still, it’s not clear how generalizable this success is. In terms of atrocities risk and prevention, Kenya was exceptional in a couple of important ways. First, this was election-related violence, not insurgency or civil war. That meant that the risk was tied to a specific political process with clear milestones and outcomes and was not part of a deeper syndrome of insecurity and mass violence. Second, the Kenyan government was a willing partner in atrocities prevention instead of a perpetrator.

Those two features make Kenya in 2013 very different from places like Syria or Sudan, where state security forces and their fellow travelers are doing the killing and the governments involved reject outside interference. Future attempts to prevent election-related and other “communal” violence might look to this case to try to understand why the Kenyan government was a willing partner and which components seem to have been most effective, but I don’t think there are big lessons from Kenya that can be transferred to more typical cases of concern. To see what I mean, just think about how effective an ICC indictment has been at preventing atrocities in Sudan, or how effective hate-speech monitoring would be at stopping violence in Syria.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that, while relatively cheap, these efforts were not cost free. In a post on the New York Times‘ Latitude blog, Journalist Michaela Wrong argues that self-censorship by the Kenyan media around this month’s elections diminished the country’s democracy.

“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”

But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.

That’s an important reminder that policy interventions often entail trade-offs across values we might think of as complementary instead of competing. Democratization and atrocities prevention are both things many of us would espouse, but what’s good for one won’t always be good for the other.

Why Is Libya’s Transitional Council Thumbing Its Nose at the ICC?

What better way to welcome a new blogger to the blogosphere than to rebut his inaugural argument?

In the first substantive post on his promising new Causal Loop blog, Georgetown University political-science student Anton Strezhnev applies game theory to present-day Libya to try to explain why that country’s National Transitional Council (NTC) is not cooperating fully with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Strezhnev focuses on the NTC’s welcoming of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, for whom the ICC has issued an arrest warrant, but the Council is arguably failing to cooperate with the ICC by dragging its feet on a trial for Saif Ghaddafi as well. Strezhnev starts with a nice recapitulation of one body of relevant theory:

Political science theory suggests that a state with a recent history of civil war that has a strong commitment to rule-of-law will be less likely to bind itself to the ICC. The explanation lies in the intersection between the role of [international organizations] and Libyan domestic political imperatives. Leaders are very careful about surrendering state sovereignty to international organizations and only do so when there is a clear political benefit. Credible commitment or “hand-tying” theories of international institutions emphasize the advantages of being restrained by an external actor. Governments may want to convince domestic audiences that they will refrain from a particular behavior but lack the ability to make that commitment believable. International agreements provide a means of signalling credibility since enforcement is no longer in the hands of the (untrustworthy) government.

He then applies this theory to the Libyan case as follows:

If the commitment explanation for state behavior is accurate, then the NTC’s tenuous relationship with the International Criminal Court may suggest a belief by Libyan transitional leaders that their domestic reforms are a sufficient signal that they will not return to Gaddafi-style repression. Given the NTC’s professed goal of establishing democratic and accountable institutions, one would expect Libya to be less likely to turn to the ICC as a post-civil war commitment mechanism, given that the sovereignty costs are still high, but the signalling benefits are not uniquely advantageous. However, the task of disarming militias and integrating fighters remains daunting and if not done properly, could increase the risk of renewed violence.  Indeed, if the NTC begins to lack credibility in the eyes of some factions, then it may start looking outward to international organizations as a means of reassurance.

Strezhnev concisely summarizes an important theory, but I think the Libyan case actually illustrate the limits of this theory rather than its validity. From the stories I’ve read, I get the sense that the NTC’s political commitments are widely regarded as dubious at best. Libya’s transitional government was born with a credibility problem, and that problem hasn’t gotten much better since Ghaddafi’s forces were finally defeated. If anything, the NTC’s credibility seems to have eroded in recent weeks, because the council is now expected to actually govern, and so far, it has proved unable to do so. As the International Crisis Group summarized in a December 2011 report on the Libya transition,

The NTC’s desire to bring the militias under central control is wholly understandable; to build a stable Libya, it also is necessary. But obstacles are great. By now, [the militias] have developed vested interests they will be loath to relinquish. They also have become increasingly entrenched…They also have advantages that the NTC and the National Army lack, notably superior local knowledge and connections, relatively strong leaderships and revolutionary legitimacy. In contrast, the NTC has had to struggle with internal divisions, a credibility deficit and questions surrounding its effectiveness. But the heart of the matter is political. The security landscape’s fragmentation – and militias’ unwillingness to give up arms – reflects distrust and uncertainty regarding who has the legitimacy to lead during the transition.

This does not sound to me like a body exuding the kind of credibility Strezhnev inferred from its decision to host Bashir.

To understand why the transitional council is still keeping the ICC at arm’s length, I think we need to think about the multiple games it’s trying to play at one time. The locus classicus on the subject is George Tsebelis’ Nested Games, in which the “games” in question are the kinds of strategic interactions Strezhnev describes. As Tsebelis puts it (p. 7),

If, with adequate information, an actor’s choices appear to be suboptimal, it is because the observer’s perspective is incomplete. The observer focuses attention on only one game, but the actor is involved in a whole network of games–what I call nested games. What appears suboptimal from the perspective of only one game is in fact optimal when the whole network of games is considered.

It would be a stretch to describe anything the NTC has done so far as “optimal,” but I think the metaphor of nested games is very useful here. The NTC wants and needs some things from the states that have endorsed the ICC, but it also wants and needs things from the militias that emerged during the civil war, and from neighbors like Sudan. Moreover, the members of the NTC are themselves presumably engaged in lots of internal haggling. In other words, the transitional government is simultaneously engaged in bargaining at four levels–internal, domestic, regional, and global–and actions that look like the prudent play on one of those levels will often look wrong-headed on others.

The decision to welcome Bashir is a great case in point. To backers of the ICC, Bashir’s visit seems like a thumb in their eye, but as Multilateralist blogger David Bosco points out in a recent post, the NTC’s decision to welcome the Sudanese president “is utterly unsurprising” in regional context.

As a weak player in a rough neighborhood, Libya’s new authorities need the support of powerful states as the move forward. They don’t need the ICC anymore (if they ever did); the court is now a nettlesome complication. So Libya will happily endure blistering press releases from the human rights community in order to cement relations with a rich and powerful neighbor. The only thing that would change that equation is the insistence of other powerful states that there would be serious consequences for welcoming the Sudanese president. Bashir’s arrival suggests that message either was not sent–or was not received.

In the case of Saif Ghaddafi, the domestic game seems to be the crucial one. When rebels from Zintan captured the son of the deposed dictator was captured in November, they initially refused to hand him over to the NTC, and reports (like this one) suggested that the high-profile prisoner was being used “as a bargaining chip in the contest between rival groups for power in the new Libya.” Seen from this perspective, the NTC’s recalcitrance looks less like a marker of the council’s domestic credibility than a function of its inherent weakness.

Whatever the exact sources of the NTC’s decisions may be, it’s clear that the ICC’s arrest warrant for President Bashir and its demand to host the trial of Saif Ghaddafi have become points of contention in all of the political games the NTC is attempting to play, and incentives at the various levels seems to be pulling the council in different directions. Even if it could make up its own mind, the NTC doesn’t yet have the power to pick a winner, and arresting Bashir or trying to force a handover of Saif before it’s capable of doing so could shred its already-gossamer authority.

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