A Decision in The Hague Sends Tribal Tremors Through Kenya

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Paul Vreeker / AFP / Getty Images

Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta (R) and a member of the Defense Council (L) attend a hearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, on September 21, 2011.

With its ruling Monday that Kenya’s deputy prime minister and richest man must stand trial for crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Court delivered a body blow to the impunity enjoyed by the elites who all too often dominate developing world politics. The International Criminal Court at The Hague ruled that four Kenyans must stand trial, accused of inciting weeks of tribal violence that erupted after a disputed December 2007 presidential election in which more than 1,000 people died and around half a million lost their homes. The four include deputy premier and finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding father and president-for-life, Jomo Kenyatta, worth $500 million according to Forbes magazine and a candidate for President in fresh elections expected in a year. Also indicted was William Ruto, a firebrand fellow candidate and former education minister. The remaining two are the current President’s top aide and a radio presenter.

The chief beneficiary of today’s judgment is Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, who is running against both Kenyatta and Ruto for President. The indictment’s effect on Kenya’s sometimes incendiary tribal divisions is far less certain, however.

Kenyatta and Ruto both immediately vowed to appeal the ruling and to continue their campaigns regardless. “They are going to be serious players,” says Macharia Munene, a professor at the United States International University in Nairobi. “They should not be ruled out.” And across Kenya the judgment stirred memories of the tribal rivalries that so scarred the East African country in 2007-8. Different groups broadcast messages of support either for Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, or Ruto, a Kalenjin. (By contrast, Odinga is a Luo from western Kenya). One editor at the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Company blasted the ICC decision on Twitter, saying Kenyatta did the right thing during the post-election violence by “fighting for Kikuyus, who were being hammered all over.” In a Kalenjin-heavy Nairobi slum, a youth organization quickly put up a chalked sign listing the four suspects with the message “We Are With You” in Swahili. Philip Tambo, an accountant who, like many residents of Nairobi, was discussing the news in the capital’s street, commented: “Kenyans are so tribal you will find so many people who support them and even end up voting for them.”

The presidential campaign could be incendiary. Kenyatta, Ruto, and their allies complain that neither Odinga nor President Mwai Kibaki, the country’s two top leaders, are charged by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. At the heart of Kenya’s divisions are rival claims to land. In particular, the country’s land-rich, mostly Kikuyu elite fear the ascent of reformist-minded Odinga, who comes from the long-marginalized Luo on the shores of Lake Victoria. (Barack Obama, Sr., father of the U.S. President, was also Luo and struggled with tribalism all his life). Odinga’s supporters, meanwhile, vehemently believe the last election was stolen from him.

After months of talks brokered by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Anna, Odinga and Kibaki eventually forged a compromise, and a coalition government, and have since presided over steady economic growth, particularly a burgeoning IT sector, and the passage of a much-needed new constitution. Some fear the ICC’s judgment, coupled with the tension of a new election, could undermine those gains, and even promises a replay of the violence. Others argue it might prove healing, and reveal a nation far less willing to follow the chauvinist and [EM] as many now profess they realize [EM] self-serving instincts of its politicians. Public opinion polls have consistently shown the public strongly supports the ICC trials.

Kenya isn’t the only one on trial: so too, many contend, is the ICC, with implications for all Africa. All of the ICC’s current cases are in African countries and, with orchestrated violence a regular feature in other parts of the world, many of Africa’s leaders complain loudly about racist bias or neo-colonialism. The more Kenya’s population can demonstrate support for the court and an intolerance for a ruling elite who have freely stolen from them and encouraged them to violence, the more those arguments will sound hollow.