Kenyan unity lessons for Afghan rivals

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (C) and Ashraf Ghani (R) smile as they speak at a press conference announcing an audit of the votes cast in the country's general election at the United Nations Compound in Kabul on late July 12, 2014. Image copyright AFP
Image caption All smiles in July as (left to right) John Kerry, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani announce the deal

Both camps in Afghanistan's presidential race appear to be wobbling over what was hailed as a landmark agreement to resolve the disputed election. A mammoth audit of every vote cast is lumbering on at a glacial pace. Karen Allen asks if lessons could be learnt from Kenya, where the disputed 2007 vote ended in a unity government.

"It's not something you do out of love, it is something you do out of necessity," is the advice Kenya's former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has for Afghanistan's presidential hopefuls, on the proposed formation of a unity government.

Raila, as he is popularly referred to, was widely tipped to be Kenya's next president in 2007 but massive fraud on all sides brought his county to the brink of civil war and left half a million people homeless and more than 1,200 dead.

Diplomacy trumped the arithmetic in Kenya's case.

The ballots there didn't get subjected to a comprehensive audit as is happening in Afghanistan - but Raila was awarded "second prize" and became prime minister in a government of national unity.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Raila Odinga was prime minister in Kenya's unity government but then lost the next election

Peace at any price was the catchphrase used by critics who argued that it made a mockery out of democracy, and neutralised the opposition. But "with the benefit of hindsight", admits Raila, "it was a good agreement to heal the country".

Just as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sent to Nairobi to "knock heads together" following the flawed 2007 election, John Kerry has done likewise in Afghanistan this summer.

He could well make a repeat visit as arguments persist over what exactly a government of national unity should look like, in a critical year of decision-making for Afghanistan.

A seven-point plan verbally agreed by both parties - as part of what are now being dubbed the "Kerry Accords" - has been widely leaked.

It provides for the temporary position of a chief executive and the expectation that within a period of two years - and if popularly agreed by a Loya Jirga (grand council) - there would be a change in the constitution to eventually create the post of prime minister answerable to parliament.

The Kenyan deal was not that different.

A prime minister was appointed to "co-ordinate and supervise" all government ministries whilst remaining accountable to parliament.

How rival candidates compare
Ashraf Ghani Abdullah Abdullah
Technocrat and former World Bank official. Open to talks with Taliban Former anti-Soviet resistance member. Wary of Taliban talks
Leading in Pashtun-dominated southern provinces Ahead in mainly Tajik northern areas
Backed by Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek ex-warlord accused of human rights abuses Supported by wealthy Balkh governor Atta Mohammad, a bitter Dostum rival
Has support of Qayyum Karzai, brother of President Karzai Also has backing of Mohamed Mohaqiq, powerful leader of ethnic Hazaras
Ahmed Zia Masood, whose brother was a famous resistance hero, helped balance ticket Gul Agha Sherzai, an influential Pashtun, helped bring ethnic balance to ticket

"You must be prepared to tolerate your adversary and come to an arrangement where you can share power," Raila says, adding this means "being prepared to compromise".

It's far from clear just how prepared Afghanistan's two presidential rivals are to do this or how ministerial posts are to be carved up.

Just like Kenya, critics of the power-sharing deal proposed for Afghanistan warn that this temporary solution is just a sticking plaster which potentially paralyses decision-making and does nothing to deal with the pressing problems of corruption and nepotism - governance failures which both countries share.

Certainly one of the by-products of Kenya's unity government was a bloated cabinet; duplication of ministerial responsibilities and a pernicious culture of impunity with ministers from rival camps trying to outdo each other in corrupt deals, knowing that their time at the top might be short-lived.

That might sound familiar to those debating the issue in Kabul.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Every vote cast is being re-checked in Afghanistan's mammoth election

Just as in Kenya where political differences have historically been expressed in ethnic terms, Afghanistan's leaders will be under pressure to look for a broad-based government.

No-one has yet been clear about what that means in practice, and Ashraf Ghani's camp believes the audit needs to be complete before such discussions with his rival Abdullah Abdullah can proceed.

Critics of power-sharing argue that $300m have been spent on a flawed election in Afghanistan only to see a unity deal put in place that rewards the "loser" - but Prof Michael Semple, a respected Afghan watcher at Queen's University of Belfast, points to two stark realities.

How much does Afghanistan "matter" to the outside world (and the US in particular) when Congress has halved its funding and parallels are being drawn with the disintegration of Iraq.

And the fact that in less than six months' time tens of thousands of foreign troops are expected to have gone home, leaving the fledgling Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban on their own.

"The country faces a war, a struggle in which the future existence of the state in its current form is at stake - but also the country in terms of the voting has also looked very severely divided," warns Prof Semple.

"I do not think that Afghanistan can afford to face the current challenges if something like half of the population feels excluded from government."

Avoiding war

But critics fear a unity government sets a dangerous precedent.

Certainly, there are examples in recent history where it sends a message that whoever cries foul loudest in an election, or whose army or militia is the strongest, may be rewarded with a position of power.

But Raila Odinga has found that unity governments do not last forever - in Kenya's case just one term.

In 2013, when elections were held under a presidential system, Raila went head to head with the scion of Kenya's independence leader Uhuru Kenyatta - and lost.

The country didn't dissolve into ethnic violence in the way that it had in the past.

That might have been down to cynical ethnic deal-making rather than grand statesmanship - but the point, according to Raila, is that a "reformed" judiciary scrutinised the result and confirmed that he had indeed lost.

Raila was scathing of the result at the time but appears to have mellowed given the benefit of hindsight.

Kenya, he says, ushered in key constitutional reforms under a unity government, imperfect as it was, which otherwise would not have happened.

And it is now "more able to withstand a loyal opposition" than it was six years ago.

A six-year transformation might be unrealistic for a country like Afghanistan emerging from three decades of war, still battling a Taliban insurgency and almost totally dependent on foreign aid.

But it is a fascinating insight into what might be.

Raila Odinga is keen to reach out to both sides in Afghanistan's presidential race as they grapple with the prospect of having to work together.

Kenya may hardly be a shining example of democracy at work half a century after independence but it has lived through an election crisis and emerged out the other side, perhaps still a little bruised but having avoided an all-out descent into war.

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