FOREIGN DISPATCH: The Irony Behind Kenya’s Elections

Uhuru Kenyatta, the newly sworn President of Kenya, is to be tried by the International Criminal Court for his role in the violence that followed Kenya's 2007 elections.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the newly sworn President of Kenya, is to be tried by the International Criminal Court for his role in the violence that followed Kenya's 2007 elections. // Creative Commons

This is the latest piece in Kiki Ochieng’s WKND BLOG column, exploring matters of political and international import beyond polls and borders. Watch her introduction to her writing series and focus here.

At 50 years old, Kenya is a young country. But it is a nation that has been groomed as the precocious child of East Africa. For decades, Western nations like the United States saw Kenya as a bulwark of stability in the oft-turbulent region.

The 2007 election shattered that picture. Back then, multiparty elections had just been introduced to the country’s political system. That change, in combination with voting along ethnic lines and an institutionalized culture of corruption, led to a disputed electoral race between the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, and Raila Odinga, formerly of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). After Kibaki allegedly manipulated the election results, disgruntled Odinga supporters took to the streets with their grievances. Those initial protests were followed by ethnic violence, primarily between members of the Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes — and the resultant deaths of thousands, not to mention massive internal displacement. With this background of violence and tribalism, Western audiences waited with bated breath to see if last month’s Kenyan elections would have a similarly bloody outcome.

As far as we can tell, it has not. Soon after the 2007 election violence, top diplomats from across the globe — including then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then-United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and then-East African Community Secretary-General Juma Mwapachu — arrived in Kenya to help organize negotiations for a transitional government. In 2010, the nation adopted a new constitution which including provisions for a more decentralised political system, the creation of a second chamber of parliament and a land commission to settle past and present land disputes. These political steps forward and the International Criminal Court’s decision to indict the “Ocampo Six” appeased international observers and looked like symbols of Kenya’s commitment to justice. Although technological glitches with the electronic voting systems led Odinga to contest the results of the election, Kenya’s Supreme Court has upheld Kenyatta as the rightful victor. Notwithstanding small bouts of violence in Kiberia and Kisumu, the election has gone smoothly.

Except for one tiny detail:  the group of people to be tried by the ICC for their involvement in the post-election violence of 2007 includes current President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta, who was just sworn in yesterday, and his running mate, William Ruto. In an ironic twist, despite their current political alliance, the two are accused of organizing attacks on each other’s ethnic groups following the 2007 election. In spite of the fact that Kenyatta’s legal woes were well-known to the Kenyan and international communities at the time of the election, the situation did not seem to faze this year’s voters — Kenyatta won 50.07% of the vote.

Many African nations have long looked at the ICC with an air of disdain, arguing that the court unjustly stigmatizes Africans. For the ICC, the Kenyan case is the ultimate prize. No longer will the court be relegated to simply prosecuting war criminals. With the trials of the Ocampo Six, the ICC stands to acquire a significant amount of legitimacy.

That is, if Kenyans will let them.

In 2010, the Kenyan parliament voted to withdraw Kenya from the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. Key witnesses dropped out of trials. Since then, Kenyatta’s case has become the first case to be tried by the ICC without the accused in custody. And back home, Kenyatta’s ICC trial seems to have only helped him politically, as millions of Kenyans are willing to stand up in support of his claims of innocence.

Although countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have issued vague warnings about the political consequences of electing a candidate like Kenyatta, most major Western democracies have congratulated President-elect Kenyatta on his victory. A precarious game of chess is being played in order to balance Western interests in Kenya with the desire to support the ICC’s mission. Yet in the acknowledgment that Kenya is a vital key power player in the war on terror and the congratulations being issued to Kenyatta, the West may implicitly acknowledge that it needs Kenya no matter its moral qualms — and Kenya, as a developing country, still needs the West.

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