NewsEast & Horn AfricaPolls test Kenya's diplomatic mettle


Posted on Thursday, 28 March 2013 14:18

Polls test Kenya's diplomatic mettle

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi

Jubilant supporters of the Jubilee Alliance after Kenyatta’s win was announced on 8 March/Photo©BEN CURTIS/AP/SIPAAfter a close and disputed election victory, Kenyatta's team turns towards the BRICS to bolster its position.


Less than 24 hours after officials announced the presidential results in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta on 8 March, a procession of German and Japanese limousines lined up at the entrance to his private residence near State House in Nairobi.

The diplomatic corps, or part of it, was paying homage to Kenya's president-elect, not waiting for the Supreme court ruling due by 2 April, sparked by Raila Odinga's appeal challenging the results.

Those congratulatory greetings from governments were a vital endorsement for Kenyatta in the days following his disputed electoral victory.

First was a message from Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete.

Ethiopia and Uganda followed suit with greetings referring to Kenyans' commitment to a peaceful election.

Televised scenes of the president-elect and his deputy William Ruto receiving the Chinese, Indian and Pakistani ambassadors at Kenyatta's private residence showed a growing international acceptance of a Jubilee Alliance government.

"All the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] have congratulated us. But what's important is that all 3,000 observers and five accredited observer missions have given [our victory] a clean bill of health.

"Even the Americans have offered qualified congratulations. They are being cautious, for obvious reasons," said Kenyatta's personal assistant Njee Muturi.

The elephant in the room is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which indicted both Kenyatta and Ruto in March 2011.

The trials are due to start in The Hague within months.

The Jubilee Alliance's strategy – as Ruto announced on the campaign trail – to turn the election into a referendum on the ICC drew Western diplomats into the centre of political debate.

As voting day neared, Western unease increased. Johnnie Carson, US assistant secretary of state for Africa, remarked ahead of the election that "actions have consequences", in one of the stronger warnings about the implications of voting for Kenyatta and Ruto.


In the end it had a boomerang effect.

Not only did the Jubilee duo galvanise supporters around anti-Western sentiment, but they hardened their stance on the ICC.

The prospect of non-cooperation with the international court, at first merely whispered among Kenyatta's backers inside the security system, then became a veiled threat amid fears of a replay of the murderous post-election violence in 2007 and 2008.

None of Kenyatta's people openly threatened non-compliance with the ICC, but the messages to Western diplomats, election observers and journalists suggested that his camp was in no mood to play nice with the wazungu (Kiswahili for foreigners).

"There is now a growing belief that neither Ruto nor Uhuru Kenyatta are going to The Hague," says a senior Western diplomat in Nairobi.

"They had us by the balls. Nobody wanted to set off civil war, so everybody backed down."

Kenyatta's supporters are not yet rejecting cooperation with the ICC.

"What we have said from the beginning is that the charges will be very difficult to substantiate. But we are committed to cooperating. We don't want to get into trouble," says Muturi.

The withdrawal of charges against President Mwai Kibaki-era civil service head and Kenyatta's co-accused Francis Kirimi Muthaura in March bolstered Jubilee's confidence.

The ICC prosecutor, Gambia's Fatou Bensouda, said she was withdrawing the charges against Muthaura because the key witnesses had been murdered, bribed or intimidated into recanting.

Although those accusations were angrily rejected by Muthaura's lawyer Karim Khan, many legal experts see the Kenyatta case following the same path.

"There is no risk of non-cooperation. The case is crumbling. Kenya is too important to risk. It's a platform for this region.

"Even if the government recognises the danger of possible isolation, I think it is counting on all actors to observe a high degree of sobriety," says a Kenyan diplomat.

Such sentiments are echoed among Western diplomats.

"People around Uhuru are pretty confident that the case will fall apart. Nobody's going to take a strong stance against Jubilee.

"The fact that, going by the official results, [Jubilee] was able to get a first-round win without violence gives them a strong hand in negotiating with the West," says an academic close to the British government.

He believes the bluff and bluster has paid off: "I think the international community is still trying to work out the implications of Uhuru's stare down with the Brits.

"The elite around Uhuru were confident that Kenya was too important to be isolated."

Still more important are the longer-term implications of Kenyatta's anti-Western stance.

Since the Cold War, Western diplomats have been comfortable dishing out development aid linked to strictures on economic policy and lectures on political hygiene.

Kenya, generally a pliant ally of the West, accepted much of the tutelage.

However the ICC saga changed the calculus.

It raised the prospect that members of Kenya's political elite would be sharing the dock with warlords from failed states.

This prompted a fundamental rift, particularly between Western officials and the Kikuyu-dominated establishment that has controlled most of the aid flows.

"Minimum contact" is how Western diplomats describe relations with a Kenyatta government.

"It's going to be very difficult for missions to justify donor funds to a government run by ICC indictees," the academic muses.

The scene at the election commission's National Tallying Centre on 8 March, where both the US and UK ambassadors walked out as Kenyatta arrived to collect his victory certificate, will remain in the minds of Jubilee supporters. More moral grandstanding is in prospect.

Western resolve already looks wobbly.

"When it became clear that Uhuru Kenyatta was going to run for the presidency, there was a unity of purpose against him within the diplomatic corps," confided a Western diplomat.

"Now, it is everyone for themselves. The idealists among us are wringing their hands. The realists are biding their time before they get down to doing business with a Jubilee government"●


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