NAIROBI – Until the Nairobi mall carnage, Uhuru Kenyatta was a beleaguered and divisive president. But his own bereavement and new clothes as commander in chief have earned him fresh support — and, some say, a “get out of jail free card” for the International Criminal Court.
The deadly Sept. 21 raid on the Westgate Mall brings new challenges to the government, which now has to explain why it failed to act on repeated warnings and find ways to thwart future attacks.
But Kenyatta himself, who lost both his nephew and his nephew’s fiancee in the siege, has shown mettle that has won him support beyond his tribal constituency.
“I did not vote for him, but I have to say he showed real strength and determination. I was proud,” said Alex Odhiambo, a young taxi driver, the day after Kenyatta announced the end of the siege.
“This attack has been a tragedy for him, too, and people across the country have been impressed that his ability to govern was not affected,” said Mwalimu Mati, who heads the government watchdog Mars Group Kenya.
In his speeches to the nation during the crisis, Kenyatta spoke of his loss, called for national unity and vowed to punish the perpetrators.
“Whether the security operation was well handled or not has not yet been laid at his feet. He sent the right signals, looked in control — presidential,” said Mati.
Not only has the 51-year-old scion of Kenya’s founding president earned his stripes, he is now likely to enjoy better support than usual from his traditional enemies.
As the country held its breath while the drama unfolded inside the mall, Kenyatta strove to cast himself as the leader of all Kenyans and not just the champion of his Kikuyu tribe’s interests, as he has often been seen.
The ratings agency Moody’s said it was not all doom and gloom on the economic front either. It said it expected the attack to “galvanize a broader mandate and dull the international and domestic political effect” of Kenyatta’s impending trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Uhuru, which means “freedom” in Swahili, was due in The Hague in November to face charges of crimes against humanity over the deadly tribal violence he is accused of having stirred after a disputed 2007 presidential election.
The Hague refused to postpone his trial after the attack, but observers say he will be in a much stronger position to argue that he is now the guarantor of Kenya’s unity and that the country needs his leadership.
“Kenyatta has the perfect doctor’s note,” a diplomat said.
With a string of key witnesses retracting or being compromised in dubious circumstances, the ICC case against Kenyatta and his foe-turned-deputy, William Ruto, had already been losing steam.
“Now there really is a lot of pressure on the ICC,” said Mwalimu Mati.
Kenya is one of the main purveyors of troops to the African force propping up the pro-Western government in Somalia and battling al-Shebab insurgents.
The group claimed the Sept. 21 mall attack but is also increasingly recognized as a global threat that could strike Western interests and is turning Somalia into one of al-Qaida’s main hubs.
When Kenyatta argued before the attack that Kenya could ill afford an absentee president, it was a somewhat academic argument. Now he has a strong reason to ask for leniency.
“Kenyatta can now say, ‘You cannot ask Kenya to help and at the same time persecute its president,’ ” said Mati.
Ngunjiri Wambugu, a young leader of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe, wrote in a column on Sunday that as the nation still mourns its dead, there is a “silver lining for (Kenyatta) in this dark cloud.”
“He now has an opportunity to remind Kenyans and the world that our country is at war, and point to Westgate as why we cannot afford to have a president with divided attention,” wrote Wambugu, who heads the Change Associates Trust think tank.
Arguing that a crisis should never go to waste, Wambugu said that the raid even presented Kenyatta with a chance to heal the wounds of the post-election violence and completely reform his administration.