Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto celebrate their presidential election win. (Reuters/Siegfried Modola.)
Nairobi—During the long gap between Kenya’s presidential election on March 4 and the announcement five days later that Uhuru Kenyatta had won, an American friend of mine who’s lived here for years called to discuss the state of affairs. “If Kenyatta wins he should invite Moreno-Ocampo to his swearing in,” the friend remarked with a laugh.
The reference was to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, until last June the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Moreno-Ocampo brought charges against Kenyatta and his presidential running mate, William Ruto, stemming from their alleged involvement—ironically on opposite sides—in violence after the 2007 election that left over 1,000 people dead. Both are accused of crimes against humanity that could result in life sentences.
My friend’s comment highlighted the critical role played by the ICC in the 2013 election, in which Kenyatta and Ruto portrayed themselves as victims of arrogant Western powers. Regrettably, Moreno-Ocampo’s actions helped reinforce that notion: not just his active choice to bring the case (the usual practice is for the ICC to act on requests from others) but also his imperial demeanor and clear delight in grabbing the spotlight.
At the time of the election, a majority of Kenyans still supported the ICC process. Anti-Western feeling was growing, however, fanned by claims that Britain and the United States were actively involved in trying to ensure Kenyatta’s defeat. Particularly rankling was State Department official Johnnie Carson’s statement that “choices have consequences.”
But it was the role of the ICC in turning Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president, into a sacrificial figure among members of his Kikuyu community that was probably the single biggest factor in his success. Many felt that whatever Kenyatta had done after the 2007 election, he had done to protect that community. A Kikuyu friend told me that her neighbors routinely likened Kenyatta to Jesus Christ, and that even in her church a priest had delivered a sermon to that effect.
In the face of such an emotional appeal—which produced huge turnouts in Kenyatta’s strongholds—it would have been hard for any candidate to compete. And to the regret of many who had supported Raila Odinga, his chief opponent, in the 2007 election, Odinga didn’t seem to have the same fire and appeal to the young this time around.
With the country’s economy in weaker shape than in 2007, both Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s party coalitions came up with platforms that were fanciful at best—Uhuru’s promised a solar-powered laptop for every child entering school; Raila’s promised to create a million jobs a year—while the campaigns themselves revolved mainly around personalities and tribal alliances.