With the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as president, Kenya joins Sudan as the second country in the world where a sitting president is facing International Criminal Court (ICC) charges for crimes against humanity. Kenyatta, his running mate William Ruto, and two others have been indicted by the ICC for orchestrating the ethnic violence that followed the Kenyan elections in 2007, which killed at least 1,200 people.
This year’s elections were remarkably peaceful compared with the elections five years ago. With 50.07% of the votes, Kenyatta earned just enough to avoid a second round runoff. His main rival, Raila Odinga, challenged the outcome of the election on the grounds of fraud but urged voters to refrain from violence.
Kenyatta’s election presents a dilemma for many countries, particularly in the West. The charges against him are serious, including accusations of murder, deportation or forcible transfer of populations, rape, persecution, and other human rights violations against civilians in Kisumu, Kibera, Nakuru, and Naivasha. The United Kingdom has already indicated that it would limit diplomatic interaction with Kenyatta, and several western countries refrained from naming Kenyatta when congratulating Kenya on peaceful elections.
Yet, at the same time, Kenya is quickly becoming a model for other countries in Africa. In the recent years, it has emerged as an innovator in the field of technology, such as mobile banking and solar power. Additionally, the recent discovery of oil enhances the role Kenya plays in the global economy.
Aside from its financial impact, Kenya has also been instrumental in subduing Islamist groups and pirates in the region. Severing relations with east Africa’s biggest economy and an emerging democratic state will only have a negative impact on the West.
The ICC trials themselves may also face great challenges. Just a few days ago, it was announced that the ICC had dropped all charges against Francis Muthaura, Kenya’s former head of the civil service accused alongside president-elect Kenyatta for his role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, due to a key witness’ withdrawal of their testimony. This decision could very much impact Kenyatta’s trial in July, as a major portion of the prosecution of both cases is based on the same evidence.
However, for the sake of international justice and those who suffered from previous violence, Kenyatta and Ruto should face trial. It is worth remembering the example of Omar al-Bashir, whose impunity over the Darfur genocide starting 10 years ago has allowed him to expand abuses to other parts of Sudan today. Allowing Kenyatta to rule without facing his ICC charges would further this dangerous precedent. However, unlike Sudan’s Bashir, no arrest warrant has been released for Kenyatta, and he has shown up to defend himself at the Hague. This leaves more flexibility for Kenyatta and his western counterparts that should be used carefully. How Kenyatta handles the pending July case will be telling. In the meantime, countries that would have relationships with him should continue to tread carefully.