A troubling win in Kenya

There are two ways to read the results of the presidential election Kenya held last week. The first is to see it as a triumph of democracy, especially after the controversy, chaos and violence that followed the last poll in 2007. A second interpretation will see it as a victory for Kenyan nationalism and a snub of the international community.

The first assessment is undoubtedly true; the second a little less so, although there is no mistaking the anger Kenyans, along with many Africans, feel toward a world that seems unduly focused on the behavior of their leaders.

Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding leader and the current deputy prime minister, won a convincing victory with 50.07 percent of the vote, narrowly topping the 50 percent threshhold that is required for him to claim a first-round win.

He bested Mr. Raila Odinga, the current prime minister, who won just 43 percent of the vote. Alleging “rampant illegality” and “massive tampering,” Mr. Odinga has said that he will challenge the vote but has asked his followers to refrain from violence despite their conviction that the ballot was stolen.

The vote was expected to be close, so the margin of victory is no doubt suspicious, but particularly troubling is that dollop above 50 percent — 8,000 votes out of 12 million — that eliminates the need for a runoff. Both Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga are wealthy men with the wherewithal and the reach to influence the election.

Suspicions have been compounded by the crash of the electronic voting system, which forced the election commission to count votes manually. In the supercharged atmosphere, the four-day delay was a breeding ground for rumors and conspiracy theories.

Mr. Kenyatta’s victory is also troubling because he and his vice president, Mr. William Ruto, face charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court (ICC). They are accused of fomenting violence after the last presidential election in 2007. At that time, paramilitary police loyal to incumbent Mwai Kibaki took over the vote counting center after the election and soon Mr. Kibaki was declared the winner. That triggered weeks of violence that resulted in as many as 1,500 deaths and forced an estimated 600,000 people from their homes.

Mr. Kenyatta, Mr. Ruto and two others are charged with orchestrating and bankrolling the violence. All four men deny the charges. (The court on Monday dropped charges against one of the men, former Cabinet Secretary Mr. Francis Muthaura, citing dead, fearful or tainted witnesses and government stonewalling.)

Mr. Kenyatta has said that he would cooperate with the court, but after his election victory he urged the rest of the world to respect the will of the Kenyan people.

Charges that the ICC seems unduly focused on African leaders cannot be summarily dismissed. Mr. Kenyatta is now the second sitting African leader to face indictment by the court; the other is the president of Sudan.

Mr. Kenyatta’s trial is scheduled for July; Mr. Ruto’s for May. While Kenyan politics are sharply polarized, the idea that their leader is under attack by the West could actually help heal the partisan divide. The ICC’s charges smack of neocolonialism to many Africans and that perception could unite Kenya.

At the same time, however, it is important for African publics to recognize that the ICC is a court of last resort. It takes charge of a case only after local judiciaries refuse to act.

Human Rights Watch reports that Kenyan prosecutors opened files on 5,000 people suspected of having committed crimes after the 2007 election, but just 14 have been convicted. The Parliament debated establishment of a tribunal to try suspects, but no final decision was made.

Only after such deliberate inaction, did the ICC step in. Still, the indictments pose problems for other governments. It will be difficult for the West to engage the new administration in Nairobi when its top officials face criminal charges.

The fine line those governments must walk was evident when, for example, the U.S. government congratulated “the people of Kenya for voting peacefully” without mentioning the president-elect. Nor can they afford to marginalize the country.

Kenya is East Africa’s largest economy. It has served as a Western ally against the encroachment of Islamic extremists elsewhere on the continent. The West cannot afford to alienate Mr. Kenyatta or his supporters.

Mr. Kenyatta can make that easier by reaching out to Mr. Odinga and his supporters. In his victory speech, the president-elect acknowledged that he only won half the vote and said that winners should be “modest in victory.”

He promised to work with political opponents. If he can govern with that spirit, he will go a long way toward healing the wounds engendered by the vote itself.

The tensions with the ICC are likely to continue. African leaders and publics will continue to bristle when the West tries to hold them accountable for their actions.

The best way to avoid the appearance of neocolonialism is for Africans to demand and deliver justice themselves. This is a daunting assignment but one that is not beyond their reach.

  • Kizee Ba Mkubwa

    A very well written article.We the people of Kenya has fully embarked in national building now that the elections are over.We are optimistic that the new government of Uhuru Kenyatta will honor its manifesto.Raila refusal to concede defeat is not a surprise to the people of Kenya because he strongly believe that elections can only be fair when he wins.We hope soon he will come to terms with reality and Kenya will move forward