WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- "The ballot has failed us but the bullet has not." -- Anwar Awlaki, letter to al-Shabaab
Though largely overlooked in the U.S. media, Kenyan general elections mark a watershed event in a region critical to U.S. economic and security interests.
Free and fair elections will go a long way to restore the legitimacy of Kenya's distressed democracy, set the stage for an economic renaissance, and counter the appeal of violent Islamic extremism that is plaguing the region.
If the elections are marred by the vote-rigging and subsequent violence that occurred in 2007-08, the country's democratic experiment and political leadership will be further de-legitimized in the eyes of its large population of largely unemployed youth.
Equally damaging, Kenya and the region will remain a high-risk proposition for foreign investors, stifling the chances of growth that would be a boon to employment and a source of de-radicalizing economic opportunity, especially for youth -- 43 percent of Kenya's population of more than 43 million is under age 15.
Prior to 2007-08, radical Islam made little inroads among the young, despite vigorous recruitment efforts by al-Qaida, then Islamist Sudan, then al-Shabaab's predecessor, Al Itihaad Al Islamiya, and some petrodollar-rich Islamic charities.
Instead, it was the promise of Kenya's emerging multiparty democracy that captured the energy and imagination of discontented Muslim youth.
The 2007-08 election debacle changed all that. Rather than uniting the country, the election led to ethnic-based rioting, and after a good deal of bloodletting, international mediation that produced an extra constitutional, power-sharing agreement between the major political factions.
By late 2009, Muslim community activists in the predominantly Muslim Coast Province expressed to the authors a growing apprehension about al-Shabaab's efforts to enlist local youth. They described the pamphlets and DVDs being distributed to boys and young men in areas with 70 percent unemployment rates and rampant drug use.
Post-election, al-Shabaab succeeded in recruiting across clan, ethnic, national and even religious lines in Kenya and throughout East Africa; so much so that by 2011 it could boast of hundreds of East African youth, mostly Kenyans, being prepared for jihad in its terrorism training camps.
This prompted the Kenyan army in to intervene in Somalia the same year with almost 5,000 troops. In concert with other U.N.-mandated African Union forces, Somali government soldiers and irregular Somali militias, the Kenyan invaders succeeded in routing al-Shabaab from its strongholds in southern Somalia.
Al-Shabaab-trained Kenyans have responded by carrying out numerous terror attacks inside Kenya. Kenyans played a prominent role in the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala of crowds watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup final.
Although the International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted a handful of Kenyan politicians for their alleged perpetration of post-election violence, none has faced trial, and, remarkably, two of the so-called Ocampo Six -- Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto -- are on the ballot as the National Alliance Party's candidates for president and vice president, respectively.
The slow moving wheels of justice and impunity for the powerful have only served to deepen the youth's cynicism toward political figures and democratic processes. The crisis of state legitimacy and the marginalization of the young help to explain in large part the ability of al-Shabaab to recruit successfully.
A credible outcome in Kenya's national election is vital to political stability, which in turn fires the economy. As regional experts have noted, to move from being a developing to a middle-income country Kenya must attract a high rate of international and local investment.
A healthy political and economic environment is thus critical to Kenya's growth and security.
It is also crucial to efforts by the U.S. and regional partners to end a chapter on militant Islamic extremism in East Africa and the Horn.
Unless the Kenyan political class can reclaim its legitimacy through an authentic electoral process, it will remain a weak partner of the United States. Indeed, it will continue to sow the seeds of discontent that threatens stability and undermines economic progress in a key region of Africa with implications far beyond the continent.
(Hrach Gregorian and Gregory A. Pirio are with De Novo Group Ltd., a consulting firm with offices in the United States and Canada.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)