By Patrick Johnson
Events in Kenya over the past week have proven bitter-sweet for concerned onlookers. The election appears to have been won by Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the first President of Kenya and a suspect by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity during last election’s brutal displays of mob violence after a contested election. According to the ICC, Mr. Kenyatta was one of four men who orchestrated the violence that eventually caused 1,200 fatalities.
This leads to the sweet note: there have been no similar accounts of mass violence and rioting in these elections. For many observes, this is a very unexpected turn of events. The razor-thin margin (.03 percent) by which Mr. Kenyatta captured the majority was small enough that the leading opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, could have denounced the results as voting fraud. In a worst-case scenario, Kenya would undergo the same bloody riots and counter-riots that followed the 2008 elections, in which Mr. Odinga similarly lost. Evidently supporters have adhered to their leaders plea to refrain from violence, allowing him to take the matter to court.
Assuming Mr. Odinga will come away from his appeal empty-handed, the election of Mr. Kenyatta has some complicated implications for U.S-Kenya relations, and for Kenya’s relation with the west more generally. Mr. Kenyatta’s standing case at the ICC has led some western diplomats to suggest that affiliation and contact with Kenya will be reduced given a Kenyatta victory. Specifically, US Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnnie Carson warned voters that “elections have consequences,” – an ominous sign that support and coordination between Kenya and the United States would dwindle if they were forced to affiliate with a (potential) international criminal.
In reality, the scant vocalizations of dissent from the west will amount to nothing more than bluster soon enough. Regardless of how tainted the background of Kenya’s president, the key geopolitical role Kenya plays in maintaining East African stability makes US-Kenya relations “too big to fail,” to adopt the language of financial pundits. According to Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Kenya’s role is pivotal in East Africa and the country is a vital partner in tackling emerging threats to regional and international security in areas such as piracy and illicit drugs.” It is impossible to understate Kenya’s role in combating the international issue of piracy, which costs the international economy between $7 and $12 billion each year. Already the UNODC has invested millions in enabling Kenya’s fight against piracy – providing training for prosecutors and police, while strengthening the country’s legal framework. Such investment will not be abandoned lightly, regardless of Mr. Kenyatta’s history.
Complimenting this strategic geopolitical role, Kenya serves as a major recipient of foreign direct investment. The Financial Times ranked Kenya 10th in infrastructure systems and eighth in human resource capacity, attributes which are vital in attracting foreign direct investments. To convey the significant role Kenya plays in the East African economy, a recent World Bank report quoted:
“It is also a member of the East African Community (EAC) of 93 million people, where trade is envisaged to flow freely across Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya by 2013. Add to this Kenya’s membership in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), with nearly 385 million people, and it is easy to see why a number of international companies have chosen the country as a regional business hub.”
If anything, these elections will stand as further evidence that Kenya is becoming a stable and reliable component of sub-Saharan African geopolitics. The greatest fear in buildup to the elections was the potential for 2007-style violence given a contested result. Now that the danger has passed, investors’ confidence in the region is sure to increase. New estimates on Kenya’s projected growth in 2013 are surpassing previous IMF estimates of 5 percent – likely due to the peaceful results of the election.
If foreigners are concerned about Mr. Kenyatta’s past, the majority of Kenyans are not. Instead, they see the ICC’s focus on Africa as evidence of bias, and the West’s condemnation of Kenyatta as meddling. Furthermore, the incompetency of the ICC seriously undermines any notion that Kenya will find itself with a convicted international war criminal as president. Although Mr. Kenyatta has repeatedly assured audiences that he will comply with the ICC and appear in court this July, the court’s conviction track record (only one in ten years of existence) suggests Kenyatta will get out free. Compounding this point is the suspicious lack of witnesses against Kenyatta. Prosecutors say witnesses have died, been bought off or intimidated into submission. Such tactics are not unusual in ICC trials, but the most that western observers can do is call foul while Mr. Kenyatta simultaneously governs Kenya and avoids a legitimate trial.
While many observers shudder at the idea of a man indicted at the ICC as President of Kenya, the takeaway from this election should be reserved enthusiasm. Not for the man, not for the questionable voting fraud – but for the ostentatious lack of violence. It bodes well for Kenya’s financial future and geopolitical status that it can conduct bloodless elections. The west needs a strong Kenya right now – best to let the ICC sputter.
Photo by the International Monetary Fund