President’s trial looms over Kenya

Anver Versi

Kenyan politics is in limbo while the President and Vice-President stand trial in The Hague, accused of inciting violence during the 2008 elections. President Uhuru Kenyatta has warned of a “power vacuum” if both men are involved in court proceedings abroad 

Over the next few months, the direction of Kenya’s political future will hang in the balance as the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his Vice-President, William Ruto, go on trial at The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ruto appeared before the court on 10 September and pleaded not guilty. Kenyatta’s trial is due to begin in November, but the African Union has asked for it to be delayed. 

Joshua Sang, a radio journalist, is facing similar charges but the case has been dropped against three others who had originally been charged. Earlier in September, the country’s parliament passed a motion, after a spirited debate, to withdraw from the international body – but this came too late to affect the course of the trial. 

Both leaders have said they will cooperate with the ICC, but Kenyatta has warned that a damaging power vacuum could develop if he and his Vice-President are both absent from the country at the same time. “If you want us to continue to co-operate with the ICC process,” he said, “let me make it clear that when Ruto is at The Hague I will be here and when I am at The Hague, Ruto will be here.” The constitution of Kenya specifies that both the President and Vice-President cannot be absent from the country at the same time. 

It is not clear how long the trial will last, but it is expected to take at least a few months. The ICC has conceded, however, that Kenyatta only needs to be present for key parts of his trial – namely the opening and closing statements – and that the rest of the hearing can take place in his absence. 

Despite slapping new VAT on a slew of products previously exempt in an effort to raise revenues and, among other things, pay salaries for some civil servants, Kenyatta remains popular with the majority of Kenyans. 

As Ruto prepared to leave for The Hague, the public mood in the capital Nairobi, and the main port of Mombasa, was belligerent. The belief is that the ICC is anti-African and in cahoots with Western powers, particularly Britain and the USA. In the run-up to the elections held last December, Johnnie Carson, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs, had warned Kenyans not to elect Kenyatta and Ruto. “Choices have consequences,” he had threatened. However, those who were directly affected by the violence say they feel that justice will at last be done. 

“The cult of impunity is over,” said Wilberforce Soiti, who was lucky to escape with his life. 

The crimes Kenya’s top leadership are being accused of were committed following elections in 2007-08 when the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over an alliance forged by Raila Odinga. Odinga, like his father Oginga Odinga, remains the most radical figure in Kenyan politics. Odinga refused to accept the election results and widespread riots and ethnic clashes broke out in the slums of Nairobi as well as in the central Rift Valley regions. 

The violence, the worst in Kenya’s independent history, left more than 1,000 dead and several thousand more internally displaced. Frantic efforts by leaders of other African countries and the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan finally brokered a power-sharing agreement in which Kibaki would be President while Odinga would occupy the newly minted post of Prime Minister. 

With the country still reeling from the horror of the violence, and with ethnic tensions high, both leaders worked to calm the situation and promised both retribution against those “who had orchestrated the violence” and compensation for the victims. 

Annan had suggested the setting up of an internal commission of inquiry, but despite the support of the Attorney-General at the time, most MPs voted to hand the matter over to the ICC. The popular refrain then was: “Don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague!” Ironically, it was Ruto, then Agriculture Minister in the coalition government, who in 2009 was one of the strongest advocates of the ICC route. “Annan should hand over the envelope that contains names of suspects to the International Criminal Court at The Hague so that proper investigations can start,” he said in a newspaper interview. 

But the tune changed dramatically in 2010 when Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former prosecutor of the ICC, named Ruto, Kenyatta and four others as principal suspects in planning, organising and inciting the 2008 violence. Charges against three of the other suspects were later dropped. Following the charges against him, Kenyatta resigned as Minister of Finance in 2012, but remained a potent political force in the country. He is believed to have been behind a high-profile conference in London that questioned the ICC’s impartiality and its competence. The African Union has also made it clear it does not have confidence in the ICC, accusing it of going for “soft targets”, most of whom are African, and ignoring worse cases of crimes against humanity committed “by the rich and powerful”. 

Ethnicity is a profound component of politics in Kenya, but is often misunderstood. There are around 42 different ethnic groups in Kenya, but the most significant, at least in terms of numbers, are the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Kalenjin, the Maasai and the Kamba. The coastal region is home to a number of smaller ethnic groups. The Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Maasai occupy the central regions, while the Luo and Abaluhya occupy the western regions around Lake Victoria. 

Ethnic politics have essentially been a tussle for power at the heart of government, although the different groups generally rubbed together without animosity in the teeming cities – until the explosion in 2008. Nevertheless, voting, especially upcountry, tends to follow ethnic lines. Three Kenyan presidents – Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki and now Uhuru Kenyatta – are Kikuyu while Daniel arap Moi, the country’s second President after Jomo Kenyatta, is Kalenjin. Raila Odinga is Luo. 

The Kibaki government (2008-13) instituted a raft of reforms, including a new constitution, which reduced the power of the President, made the judiciary independent and prohibited the incitement of ethnic hatred by word or deed. A new mood of unity and optimism seemed to pervade the country as pledges of ‘never again’ referring to the violence were made over and over. Economic growth began to pick up. 

Before this year’s elections there was a major realignment of political force against Odinga’s CORD alliance. This seemed to bring Kenya’s early political rivalry full circle: Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, versus Raila Odinga, son of Jomo’s fiercest opponent, Oginga Odinga. ‘Double O’, as Odinga was known, was also leader of the country’s second largest ethnic group – the Luo. There were strong expectations that this time, with the shadow of the ICC charges hanging over Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga would win the elections and that at long last, a Luo would occupy the top political office. 

It was not to be. Ironically, an openly hostile stance towards Kenyatta by the British and US governments worked in his favour and persuaded many swing voters, who resented what they saw as foreign interference in their affairs, to join his camp. He won a narrow victory earlier this year and Odinga has found himself once again sitting on the opposition benches. 

Uhurua Kenyatta, the country’s youngest President, has been touring the nation preaching the gospel of unity and has achieved a surprising measure of popularity across the ethnic and class divide. He handed out thousands of land title deeds in the Coast Province and launched the final resettlement scheme for more than 8,000 internally displaced people who had been living in camps. 

The compensation package of around US$4,500 has been described as too little, but better than nothing. He has also set aside a significant sum to help young people under 35 set up their own businesses and promised them a 30 per cent slice of the government’s procurement budget. 

The question now hanging over the country is what the ICC trial will reveal, what verdict it will arrive at and, perhaps most critically, can the country avoid political paralysis while both the President and Vice-President are fighting to clear their names in far-off Holland? Few, at this point, harbour any doubts that both Ruto and Kenyatta are confident the evidence against them will not stack up.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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