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Kenya elections could test U.S. relationship

MOMBASA, Kenya There's a lot riding on Kenya's national elections Monday. They will be more than a simple government face-lift, and they could put a roadblock in the country's relationship with the U.S. -- a relationship valuable to Washington and Nairobi.

These are the first countrywide elections since 2007, when ethnic violence left more than 1,000 people dead and about 600,000 displaced. Since then the country has successfully passed a new constitution to increase power-sharing between the major political factions within the government.

But shadows of the election violence six years ago have not wholly vanished. A resurgence in widespread violence would present the first barrier to the steady U.S.-Kenya relationship. Already there have been signs that political attacks have returned.

The Associated Press reports at least 19 people were killed in multiple attacks Monday, as secessionists on Kenya's coast angry over what they claim is central government neglect ambushed police while armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows. Although the secessionists' violence isn't exactly akin to the ethnic violence of 2007 and 2008, it is still a worrying sign.

Asked whether he thought such violence was a real possibility this week, Kenya's Ambassador to the U.S., Elkanah Odembo said before the election there was a belief this go-around would be violence-free.

Odembo said the introduction of the country's now-independent electoral commission, and its independent judiciary, were likely to prevent violent outbursts.

"We have a new electoral commission that has done pretty well so far, including managing the referendum a few years ago," explains Ambassdor Odembo.

The 2010 referendum passed a new constitution which established greater power-sharing within the government. As a result, this election will see Kenyans chose not only a new president, but also 47 governors, 384 members of parliament and 47 county assemblies.

According to Joel Barkan, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington has a vested interest in seeing stability maintained in Kenya.

To the north of the East African nation, the U.S. is working in Somalia to help the weak central government try and counter al Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab. To Kenya's west, the U.S. is involved in facilitating a fledgling peace between Sudan and the relatively new nation of South Sudan. Kenya sits as an "anchor state" for U.S. relations in the region.

In January, Barkan encouraged the U.S. government to take measures supporting a violence-free election in Kenya in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations. By mid-January, a number of non-governmental organizations based in the U.S. had dispatched more than 100 observers to Kenya, and many of these Americans are working with people from other countries. For example, the Carter Center sent over 60 observers from 29 nations to monitor voting and counting and a handful of long-term observers will remain to monitor the post-election period.

"The arrangement for U.S. observer groups came later than it could have, but it came in the nick of time," says Barkan.

There is a second possible election-inspired barrier to the U.S.-Kenya relationship: the leading Presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, is facing charges by the International Crimminal Court (ICC)that he instigated violence during the 2007 elections. Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto, faces the same accusations.

The trail was recently delayed until August, but once it begins the trial that could take more than three years to complete. The President would be unable to address the U.N. General Assembly or other international forums. Barkan says this will not serve in Kenya's international interests and many Kenyans agree.

"Kenyatta's charges at the ICC for crimes against humanity will put the U.S. between a rock and hard place, especially since Obama's administration is one that upholds democracy and would therefore be forced to recognize Kenyatta's government," says Kennedy Mutathori Mugo, a Kenyan who attended college in the U.S. and currently resides in Washington, DC.

Mugo's family found itself in involved in political violence in 2005 when his father, Stephen Mugo, a former mayor, was killed by a gunman.

"Today, Kenyan politics have not changed much from the 90's. Power is still dependent on gunning support from the large ethnic groups," Mugo says.

Others believe Kenya to be headed in the right direction, Kenyatta or not.

"I believe all the candidates are equally up to the task," explains Mbarak Abdallah, a Kenyan native and the principal curator at the Fort Jesus World Heritage Site in Mombasa, Kenya. He has met with every U.S. Ambassador since 2000.

Adballah is a firm advocate of the U.S.-Kenya relationship, a friendship with roots reaching back to the 1950s when the Kennedy family offered Kenyan students grants to attend American Universities. These roots have only strengthened in most recent years.

In his State of the Union speech President Obama made clear that US foreign policy will not loose sight of Africa.

While al Qaeda is a "shadow of its former self, President Obama said: "Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged - from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving."

President Obama is also linked to these upcoming elections in another respect: Malik Obama, his half brother, is running to be a Governor of Kenya. According to the AP his slogan mirrors President Obama's 2008 election slogan: Change.

On Monday if neither Presidential candidate receives the majority of the votes, a second-round of voting would be needed. Otherwise, the fate of Kenya will be decided on March 4th.