By Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies
It seems that despite being invited to London to attend the recent international conference on Somalia and meetings with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Uhuru Kenyatta seems to think that UK was snubbed in the UK.
The Star website in Kenya has written that,
“[Kenyatta’s] first visit to the UK as President, as his fan base fondly referred to it on social media, will not form the happiest chapter of his memoirs in the fullness of time. The tour was fraught with a bad press and subtle diplomatic snubs, not the least of which was the denial by Prime Minister David Cameron, his host, of a photo op. Throughout his three days in London, Monday May 6 to Wednesday 8, President Kenyatta and his entourage were constantly reminded of his status as an International Criminal Court indictee of crimes against humanity”.
But what did President Kenyatta expect?
In many ways he was lucky – because of geostrategic priorities and the need for Kenya in the Western “war on terror” approach to the complex Somali conflict – to be invited in person to London. The British government had made no bones about the awkwardness of future diplomatic contacts if he was elected, with the ICC trial hanging over him like the Sword of Damocles. Kenyatta and his advisers cannot expect the British and international press to be as supine as most of the Kenyan press was over his impending trial. During the elections and since, the Kenyan media has been very pro-Kenyatta and given more space to critics of the ICC trial than any impartial observer would see as reasonable.
During his visit to the UK, Cameron met Kenyatta and shook him by the hand – but the snub was that there was no official photo, something of importance in countries where what the president does is always the lead story, with a large photo included of him being feted. Even with Kenya’s diverse press, freedom of the press is restricted by political influence, bribery and a heavy dose of self-interested self-censorship.
The occasional critical piece that is posted – as happened with some written during the run-up to the Kenyan Supreme Court’s decision on the election result – often disappears from the web almost as soon as it goes up when it is decided that it has gone a little too far. And those who dare speak out are lambasted and threatened through social media.
Many Kenyans follow my news aggregation website, Africa-News and Analysis, which has been blocked on Facebook several times when I’ve put up pieces critical of Ruto and Kenyatta or referring to hate messages on social media. When I complain, it is duly unblocked – but the website is only blocked when I put up pieces about Kenya and the ICC or Kenyan hate media. Odd that.
What was also odd, but understandable in the Kenyan context, was the appeal by Kenya’s permanent representative at the UN for the UN Security Council to ask the ICC to defer the Kenyatta and Ruto cases. The Security Council can, on grounds of peace and the prevention of conflict, ask the ICC to defer for a year at a time – and this can happen repeatedly. Such a deferral was unlikely as it is hard to see Britain and the USA agreeing to vote in favour of or not vetoing such a suggestion. Within days, Kenyan Attorney General and Vice-President Ruto himself denied the government had requested this and implied the Kenyan UN mission had acted alone, although that seems highly unlikely over such a key issue for the President and his deputy. Ruto says he wants his name cleared by the court – though he does also want a delay so the trial does not start in the next few months.
However much Kenyatta hankers for full diplomatic honours and the kudos of being received by world leaders in a manner that he can use to demonstrate his international acceptance to Kenyans, he remains in a sort of diplomatic limbo. He is too important to ignore but too embarrassing to embrace warmly. Richard Dowden set out the problems for the West this week and warned that whatever the outcome, “a major diplomatic earthquake is about to happen”. And it is – the UK and US must either effectively undermine the court by doing nothing if Kenyatta and Ruto don’t appear or they must ditch a key ally in the “war on terror” in East Africa and the Horn and treat them the way Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is treated.
There is also the chance, of course, that the cases will collapse as witnesses are disappearing fast – this scuppered the case against Francis Muthaura earlier in the year. Some witnesses now can’t be found, some witnesses have been murdered and some have recanted their earlier testimony. The collapse of the trial on the grounds of dead or disappearing witnesses would do Kenya no favours in the long run and reinforce the old practices of intimidation and the impunity of political leaders.
But what is also obvious is that Kenyatta and Ruto really don’t seem to have grasped the gravity of being tried for crimes against humanity by the ICC and the diplomatic consequences of being suspected of organizing mass killings. Used to an environment where impunity rules for those with power, influence , wealth or the ability to intimidate witnesses, they don’t seem to understand that people charged with the crimes of which they have been accused are not going to be welcomed with open arms; at best they will be tolerated out of political necessity. They need to wake up and smell the coffee in The Hague and realise that impunity is not an option for the ICC – and if they are able to stop witnesses appearing and the case collapses, in the eyes of many Kenyans and most outside Kenya they will be deeply suspect and kept diplomatically at arm’s length.
Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and teaches in the School of Politics and International relations at the University of Kent. He runs the Africa – News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com).