It is the hallmark of a maturing political system when once bitter political rivals forge an alliance. But it is disconcerting when the individuals in question have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity over their alleged role in the deadly political crisis that swept Kenya following the 2007 elections. The controversial and yet calculated political maneuvering in the midst of mounting pre-election tensions raises fears of electoral violence ahead of the March polls.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta will contest the upcoming presidential elections with former minister William Ruto as his running mate, forming an unlikely coalition. They claim to be reconciling on behalf of Kenyans and their aspiration for peace and prosperity. But Kenyatta and Ruto were on opposite sides with the former supporting incumbent Mwai Kibaki and the latter backing his challenger Raila Odinga during the 2007 highly disputed election. The resulting violence claimed more than 1, 200 lives and forced 500,000 from their homes.
ICC judges confirmed charges against the hopefuls for instigating the electoral violence and trials will begin in early April next year. Kenyatta is alleged to have spearheaded efforts by his ethnic Kikuyu community to carry out retaliatory attacks against Ruto’s Kalenjin ethnic group in the Rift Valley, the epicenter of the violence. Ruto is alleged to have urged his supporters to “uproot the weeds from the fields”—referring to communities non-indigenous to the region. Communal and prior political allegiances make of Kenyatta and Ruto strange political bedfellows and betray any logic for the alliance if political and communal allegiance considered.
But the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket is a marriage of convenience to escape from justice and accountability. While Kenya is legally obliged to hand over those charged by the ICC, Kenyatta and Ruto could avoid this fate if they hold the presidency and vice-presidency, a likely outcome with considerable support from their respective ethnic groups. Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General and current African Union envoy overseeing the election, urged Kenyans to prevent this outcome warning that it could damage the country’s external relations and create a serious conundrum for the international community.
Yet the most worrying aspect of this political union is its propensity to spark electoral violence. Warning signs include bouts of inter-ethnic violence and hateful political propaganda. Tribal clashes occurred in the Tana Delta region, where more than 100 people were killed in August in fighting between the Pokomo farmers and the Orma, semi-nomadic cattle herders, in what appeared to be a dispute over land and water. Furthermore, politicians such as junior minister Ferdinand Waititu has appeared in court charged with hate speech and inciting violence in the capital city Nairobi. Against this backdrop are other societal undercurrents such as deep societal inequality, corruption, high unemployment rate among the youth, which makes the situation all the more susceptible to violent clashes.
The government, Kenya’s civil society, regional African groups and the broader international community should have plans in place to ensure a peaceful outcome to the Kenyan election. The government must uphold its responsibility to protect civilians with necessary reforms within the security sector. Civil society groups should mobilize and sensitive the population to condemn ethnic-based violence. Last but not least, the United States can play a leading role in coordinating preventive diplomatic efforts with key Kenyan and international partners, including the African Union and United Nations.