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State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs

Wendy Sherman’s Remarks at Kenyatta University, Nairobi

November 5, 2012

As prepared

Good morning.  It is a pleasure to be with you today.  I am thankful to Vice Chancellor Professor Mugenda for such a kind introduction.  This is my second trip to Kenya in less than a year as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and I have received a warm welcome from the Kenyan people both times. 

For the first time in my life, I will not be in my country on election day.  I have already voted and I made a conscious decision to be here in Kenya on the eve of U.S. elections.  As Americans vote in another peaceful transition to either a second and final term for President Obama or a first term for Governor Romney, I thought it was particularly meaningful to be here in Kenya where you and your fellow citizens are perfecting your democracy; and are working to replace violence with peace, uncertainty with stability, and disillusionment with robust democracy.

I can think of no better occasion to discuss this goal than today, on the eve of America’s presidential election.  Tomorrow, millions of Americans will go to the polls to cast their vote for President of the United States of America.  More than 130 million Americans voted in the last presidential election in 2008, and as many or more Americans will go to polls across the United States tomorrow.  And they will vote not just for President of the United States, but for Senators, and members of the House of Representatives, and local level officials like mayors, school board officials, county commissioners, and others.

Election day in the United States underscores who Americans are as a people.  Vibrant, vigorous, and competitive elections are a source of strength for our nation.  They are hard-fought contests of ideas, policies, political platforms, and ideologies.  But when the campaigns are over, when election day comes and people go to the polls to vote, competing candidates, political parties, and Americans come together to support the will of the electorate. This is why I know that our democratic institutions and processes will be as strong on the day after the election as they were on the day before.

I remember the 2000 elections when Al Gore and George Bush ran for president.  The election results were so unclear that the election went to the Supreme Court, which voted five to four in favor of Mr. Bush.  Some said that Mr. Gore could and should have challenged the results by going to our Congress, but he conceded, as he believed, above all, in the importance of affirming our constitutional process.  And so Mr. Bush became president.

As you have seen, in our elections, our candidates are tough and often negative in their criticisms of each other and our debates are robust and can be contentious.  Ensuring open and free debate is one of the best ways to create a system that brings people together, even after their candidate or political party has lost.  This means protecting fundamental rights like freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly.  It means supporting a competent, credible, and independent election administration and judiciary.  And it means respect for the rule of law to prevent violence, intimidation, discrimination, and other obstacles that could impede people from participating in the electoral process and casting their vote. 

Some of you may know that it took the United States a long time to eliminate many of these barriers. When the United States Constitution was ratified more than two hundred years ago, only white, male, property owners had the right to vote. President Obama often talks about the history of the United States as the history of our becoming “a more perfect union.”  Eliminating restrictions on voting rights was a critical step toward strengthening our democratic institutions and attaining that union.  From the 1830s onward, American women called for the United States to allow them the right to vote.  These women did not succeed for nearly a century, until 1920, when the United States ratified the 19th amendment to our Constitution, which states that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex and gave women the right to cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice.  

Our country also struggled with recognizing the rights of African-Americans to vote and be counted as equal citizens under the law.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, led by men and women like Rosa Parks and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for equal civic participation for black communities. Their non-violent efforts resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This landmark legislation outlawed discriminatory voting practices responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African-Americans.  After its passage, Dr. King said “voting is the foundation stone for political action.”

Americans who supported social and political reform in the United States understood that change would take time, patience, and peaceful persistence.  Thankfully, the leaders of the women’s rights movement as well as civil rights activists persisted, and our democratic institutions are stronger today because of their dedication.  Leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King would not have been able to create these changes without freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.  

Since the birth of our nation, Americans have fought and died to ensure that all Americans can enjoy these essential freedoms.   Our success as a nation depends on the inclusion of all our citizens in the democratic process - regardless of race, gender, religion, or ethnic origin.  This is even more important today, when the political and economic success of our interconnected world depends on the effectiveness, sustainability, and transparency of democratic institutions across the world, whether in the United States or here in Kenya.  As President Obama stated during his 2009 speech in Accra, Ghana, “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”  Strong, transparent, democratic institutions, and peaceful democratic transitions of power, contribute to the advancement and economic development of Africans and peoples around the world.  Kenya and other democracies in Africa are crucial partners in this process. 

Democracy is indeed moving forward in Africa. Guinea-Conakry and Cote d’Ivoire have restored democracy and put an end to gross human rights abuses. Mauritania and Niger have returned to democracy, Senegal has re-established its role as a democratic leader on the continent, and Ghana completed a successful constitutional transfer of power following the tragic death of President John Atta Mills.  Malawi and Zambia have held successful democratic transitions, the world’s newest nation of South Sudan is making considerable progress, and for the first time in more than two decades Somalia – with assistance from Kenya and other regional partners - has a representative government.

Kenya’s ratification of a new constitution designed to strengthen Kenyan democratic institutions and processes provides another strong example of democratic progress in Africa.  As you know, the U.S.-Kenya relationship dates back to Kenya’s independence in 1963 and has grown ever stronger over the intervening years.  2013, Kenya’s 50th year of independence is the year Kenya will hold national elections ushering in a new structure of national and sub-national government, implementing important provisions of your new constitution, and demonstrating the strength of your democratic institutions and ideals.  What a promising way to start the next fifty years of your country, with so much exciting political change on the horizon to empower citizens.

Of course, successful implementation of political change requires a robust economy, and Kenya’s political stability is the key to its economic growth.   All of the economic indicators are pointing in the right direction and Kenya, as a stable, regional economic hub in a rapidly expanding market, is poised for dynamic economic growth that has the potential to increase incomes and jobs dramatically. 

The United States is a close partner in supporting this economic growth.  Since 2000, the United States has helped spur Kenya’s economic growth, trade and investment through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.  Last year, Kenya exported nearly 300 million dollars worth of goods to the United States under AGOA.  Local firms benefiting from AGOA employ thousands of workers in Kenya. This translates into support for tens of thousands of livelihoods.  We are also working with the Government of Kenya and Kenyan entrepreneurs to diversify Kenya’s exports, so that more business owners—particularly Kenyan women, I am pleased to note—can take greater advantage of these valuable benefits.

American and other companies want to do business in Kenya.  We have seen a large increase in just the past few years of companies looking to establish their regional and Africa-wide hubs in Kenya.  While there is a great deal of optimism among these investors there is also concern that the upcoming elections go smoothly.  Kenya needs free, fair, and peaceful elections in 2013 to ensure the stable and secure democratic environment necessary to continue to attract U.S. and foreign investment and to fuel Kenya’s continued economic growth and prosperity. 

Good governance and credible elections in Kenya are also important for regional peace and security.  The Kenyan Defense Forces’ achievements in Somalia have proven Kenya’s prominence as a regional leader in East Africa.  Having worked closely with Kenya on the significant security challenges in the region, the U.S. was extremely pleased that Kenyan forces joined AMISOM and took such decisive action to free large areas of Somalia from al Shabaab control.  The United States will continue to support this effort as Kenya and the international community support political change in Somalia that will increase security and stability in the region. 

The United States is also working closely with Kenyan security forces to counter the terrorist threats that unfortunately continue in Kenya.  Like the United States, Kenya knows all too well the tragic consequences of terrorism. We admire Kenya’s resolve and determination in the face of these terrorist threats, and stand side by side with the people of Kenya.  The recent passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act was a major step forward in the fight against terrorism, providing the necessary legal framework to arrest and prosecute individuals directly involved in or financially supporting terrorism.     

So, strong democratic institutions and free, fair, and peaceful elections are critical for political stability, economic growth, development, and regional security.  The United States is fully engaged in supporting strong elections that will reinforce Kenya’s stability and prosperity.  To help Kenya conduct a peaceful and credible election, the United States has committed more than 30 million dollars in elections-related assistance since 2010.  We are actively supporting those who are working for peaceful and non-violent elections.  U.S. funding provides administrative support, technical capacity building, and training for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.  The United States also provides funding for a broad range of elections-related activities, including voter education programs, training for political parties and candidates, small grants to enhance community cohesiveness and spread peace messages, and elections observation programs. 

As Kenya prepares for the March 2013 national elections, Kenyans have the opportunity to reinforce their country’s democratic traditions and create another positive example of the peaceful exercise of democratic rights and responsibilities in Africa.   The March 2013 national elections also provide Kenyans with an opportunity to show the world that Kenya has moved beyond the tragic post-election violence of 2007 and 2008 and set the stage for realizing fully the promise of the country’s robust economy and new constitution.   

These elections also offer an unprecedented opportunity for Kenyan women to compete for and hold elected office under the new constitution.  As Secretary Clinton has said on many occasions, “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”  By electing more women into office, Kenya will be making great strides to ensure the universality of human rights and reinforce Kenya’s democratic institutions.  The United States strongly supports increased women’s participation in politics, and USAID recently contributed 2.4 million dollars to the UNDP basket fund to support IEBC, promote women’s participation in politics, and combat election-related gender-based violence.

At the grassroots level, the United States supports those who are working to ensure broader voter participation.  Our Yes Youth Can! program recently assisted 500,000 youth to complete the national ID registration process, which will allow them to register to vote.  During September and October we, along with other international donors, have supported voter awareness programs such as the recent launch of the Uongozi 2012 campaign and the roll out of the International Republican Institute and Uraia civic and voter education programs. 

At the beginning of my speech I mentioned our own elections in the United States tomorrow, the persistence of American women in their struggle to vote in the United States, and African Americans’ successful efforts to be treated as equal citizens under the law.  Allow me to reiterate this point.  The participation of everyone – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or race – in politics is essential to the success of any and every democracy, whether in Kenya, or Ghana, or South Africa, or the United States.  A democracy and democratic election can only be credible when all members of society have a voice and are allowed to participate.  The women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement were essential to improving freedom and democracy in America, and drastically altered the political, social, and economic landscape of our future.  And it is the hope of the United States that as Kenya approaches its presidential elections that all Kenyan citizens will be able to vote peacefully and that Kenyan society will be united in support of the result.

The value of embracing the contributions of all members of society and the importance of each individual is one we share with others across the globe.  As President Obama said in his address to the UN in September this year, “Freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture.  These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.  And even as there will be huge challenges to come with the transition to democracy, ultimately, government of the people, by the people, and for the people is likely to bring about stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”  The protection of this notion, the notion that people, all people, have the right to freedom of expression, is one of the underlying principles of democracy.  While the U.S. did not always allow all of our people to participate in the electoral process, and even today has to remain vigilant to ensure there are no barriers to voting, the belief in this fundamental right and the willingness of individuals and civil society activists to persistently pursue this right, helped America become a vibrant, thriving democracy.

We are committed to these universal human rights and values, and to furthering democracy and economic development.  By bringing all the tools of government to help build democratic institutions, the United States will lay the foundation for stronger partnership with African governments that promote development, good governance, and sound economic policies. 

We are working toward strengthening institutions at every level – to support and build upon the aspirations of Africans for more open and accountable governance by promoting human rights and the rule of law.  The strengthening of these institutions is essential to a democracy.  These increase capability across society – government, civil society, and individuals –and allow them to fully exercise their civic participation, their right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. 

Our commitment and enthusiasm for democracy, stability, economic growth, and opportunity in Africa can only succeed when our partners – African governments, civil society organizations, entrepreneurs, local activists, youth, women, and every day citizens make identical commitments.  Kenya has already shown the world that it has made this commitment through the referendum and adoption of your new constitution.  The idea that citizens can and should press their governments to do better has caught on all over the world.  The adoption of a new constitution for Kenya demonstrates this.  It shows that the government and people of Kenya support the right of individuals to exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and to peacefully bring change to their political systems.  Active and engaged citizenry is a pillar of free societies, and the embodiment of this freedom in Kenya will help ensure free and fair participation in the upcoming general election. 

Most of you in this room have only lived a small part of your nation’s history, but you will be a very large part of its future.  You hold the power to determine that future.  It is your vote, your election, your democracy, and your nation.

Thank you for your time and I will now take a few questions from the audience.