Kenya has been the anchor of political stability in East Africa. But in recent days, 300 people have been killed and 100,000 have been displaced in political unrest after the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki amid widely reported voting irregularities.
As America's key ally in the region, Kenya cannot be allowed to collapse. Mr. Kibaki has acquiesced to a judicial investigation of the elections, but its impartiality is open to doubt. The U.S. must warn Mr. Kibaki that unless he agrees either to a conciliatory accommodation satisfactory to the opposition or to new, legitimate elections, economic sanctions will be in the offing.
Mr. Kibaki's refusal to budge has only intensified opposition suspicions of government fraud and fueled the violence, much of which has had the flavor of outright ethnic cleansing.
If the opposition's grievances are left unanswered, civil discord could consume the nation. While complete civil breakdown is unlikely, even partial political debility would diminish Kenya's sorely needed leadership and clout.
East Africa and the Horn of Africa constitute a strategically critical region that includes a failed state in Somalia, the defiant and repressive Islamist government of Sudan, insurgency-plagued Uganda, two countries ever poised for war in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and slowly rising Islamic radicalism throughout. Always pro-Western, Kenya alone has been consistently active and effective in regional diplomacy. Nairobi furnished crucial political support for the north-south peace process in Sudan - one of Washington's few recent diplomatic achievements in Africa. Kenya's steady counterterrorism cooperation has also helped the United States keep a lid on Islamist terrorism in the region. And Kenya's dogged diplomacy has kept alive prospects of Somalia's political rehabilitation.
Kenya thus remains America's indispensable partner. Kenya's problems are, to be sure, acutely domestic. Deep divisions among its more than 30 tribes were kept to a simmer during the autocratic but politically sturdy 24-year rule of former President Daniel T. arap Moi, a member of the medium-sized Kalenjin tribe. Mr. Kibaki, however - like Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta - is from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest and most powerful. The large but less-powerful Luhya and Luo tribes, along with smaller tribes, backed Raila Odinga, a wealthy and charismatic Luo, as a champion of the poor and an antidote to a Kibaki government increasingly regarded as corrupt, incompetent and biased in favor of the Kikuyu.
There is room for a power-sharing compromise. Even if official election results stand, although Mr. Kibaki narrowly won the popular vote, his coalition party was decimated in parliament, emerging with only 37 of 210 seats as several Cabinet ministers were defeated. Yet the Kibaki government has summarily rejected the opposition's proposal of temporary joint rule and a new election in three months.
Washington has tried mild, bilateral diplomatic measures - bland commendations of peaceful democratic principles and earnest pleas for negotiation - but they have been insufficient to move Mr. Kibaki. Stern demarches and offers of third-party brokerage would also probably fall short, as his government has stated firmly that it will not accept outside mediation. Multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the African Union could nudge Mr. Kibaki toward concessions, but they alone probably won't be able to produce them.
The most effective political lever in Africa is still economic power. The U.S. and other major powers, bilaterally and through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have long used threats to withhold economic assistance to cajole African countries - including Kenya - into better governance. The result has been a frustrating seesaw pattern of compliance and backsliding.
But now Kenya has more to lose. Mr. Kibaki is proudest of Kenya's economic recovery. Since his first election victory in 2002, Kenya has enjoyed 5 percent average annual growth, earned a solid B+ sovereign credit rating, and maintained a comparatively strong currency. After delaying millions of dollars in aid in 2006 because of corruption, the IMF and World Bank resumed lending in 2007. Prolonged political violence could threaten these results as well as the $870 million annual tourist trade and major state commercial transactions such as Kenya's joint venture with the British giant Vodaphone and a planned $300 million international bond issue.
Acting in concert, the United States, European powers, the European Union and the international financial institutions can establish strong incentives to compromise by ensuring Nairobi that although recalcitrance will be penalized, compromise will be rewarded. Preserving Kenya's special place in Africa's geopolitics, as well as its recent domestic advances, warrants the effort.
Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.