The coming elections in Kenya have caused major consternation in London amid fear that the outcome may unravel key British strategy in east Africa.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the candidate running neck and neck with his main opponent in the polls, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and the UK’s position is that it will have nothing but the most “essential” contact with someone in that position.
If Mr Kenyatta, the son of the first leader of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, is sworn in as president on the scheduled date of 10th April, his first official act would be to appear to face charges in The Hague the following day. He will be accompanied by his running mate, William Ruto, who has been accused alongside him of orchestrating the violence which left 1,300 people dead during the last elections in 2007.
Both men insist that they are prepared to face justice and it remains unclear how Kenya’s new government would function with its two leaders enmeshed in legal action which may last several years.
A number of cross-departmental meetings have been held in Whitehall to decide what action to take on a range of issues involving Kenya, a Commonwealth partner and ally, from anti-terrorist operations, military links, to trade and aid distribution in the region, should Mr Kenyatta win.
Mr Kenyatta, in turn has warned that any sanctions or cutting of trade by the UK and the West would make a government run by him to turn to other international partners, especially the Chinese.
Kenya is the centre for security operations by the UK and the West against the Islamist Al-Shabab group in neighbouring Somalia, a country which Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, has described as second only to Pakistan as a destination for extremist British Muslims. UK military teams sent to train Somali forces, part of a strategy to build up security in countries facing insurgencies, will have its logistical support base in the country. One of the British army’s main exercise areas overseas is also in Kenya and is used by brigades in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan.
Kenya is also the hub of aid programmes for neighbouring countries for Britain; trade between the two countries grew to a billion pounds last year, and the UK is the largest single foreign investor with projects totalling £ 2 billion and around 70 companies involved.
There is widespread trepidation that like the last elections the ones in March will also be mired in strife with reports of arms being stockpiled, and inflammatory rhetoric along tribal and sectarian lines. A report by Human Rights Watch warned that the risk of violence was “perilously high”. There have been a series of attacks among rival groups, seven people shot dead last week at a mosque in north-eastern Kenya near the Somali border.
Wide-ranging reforms have been carried out at the instigation of the instigation of the US and UK. However, in this febrile and politically charged climate Britain has been accused by Mr Kenyatta’s followers of arrogance and interference. A part played by DFID in voter registration process has, in reality, according to them been part of a plot to manipulate the polls.
A legal attempt to stop Mr Kenyatta from running in the elections was thrown out by a Nairobi court. He currently just trails Raila Odinga, the current prime minister, seen as the West’s sponsored candidate by 45 per cent to 43 per cent in the polls. The contest, it is widely expected, is likely to go to a second round of voting after an indecisive first round on 4th March.
Mr Kenyatta insisted that he would appear before the ICC. But he went on to say: “But if Kenyans do vote for us, it will mean theu themselves have questioned the process that has landed us at the International Criminal Court. But that does not mean that we will cease to cooperate because as I have said most importantly we understand and recognise the rule of law and we will continue to cooperate as long as we are signatories to the Rome Statute.”
The American and a number of European Union governments have made public pronouncements urging people to desist from violence and also warning of the difficulties which will be caused if Mr Kenyatta is elected. But when the High Commissioner, Dr Christian Turner, stressed, without naming individuals, that the UK will have minimal contact with anyone indicted by the ICC, it was seized on by critics as an example of colonial hubris.
Mr Kenyatta has reposted “In actual fact the negative impact is on the British. Kenyans are showing they are not keen on foreigners telling them what to do. His remarks helped us out.”
The candidate also insisted that the prospect of commercial and other ties with Britain would not be too damaging. “Many countries are willing to deal with Kenya” he said. “We have a good relationship with China; and when one door closes another one opens.”
Peter Cheboi, a political scientist, pointed out that any impression of interference by Britain and the West could backfire. “There could be a backlast against people of European descent. We must not forget that almost six million acres of land in our country is still owned by people of British extraction. British firms make a huge profit from trading in Kenya and we are sure that the Chinese and the Indians, the new economic superpowers, will be happy to step in.
“It is hypocritical of the Americans to talk about the Hague court and the need of our politicians to go there. They themselves have refused to sign the ICC treaty. They a;sp must know a Western boycott of Kenya would mean more influence for Islamists.”
Kenya's long road to independence
The Berlin Conference of 1885 imposed formality on Europe's Scramble for Africa, designating the 250,000 sq miles chunk from the Indian Ocean to beyond Lake Victoria as British East Africa. Today, it forms Kenya and Uganda.
The Scottish ship-owner Sir William Mackinnon set up the Imperial British East Africa Company and established trading activities. Fighting off tribes, and the two infamous lions the "Man-eaters of Tsavo", he oversaw the construction of the railway from Mombasa on the coast 660 miles inland to Lake Victoria, at a cost of 2,500 lives.
High taxes, low wages and hardship after the First World War politicised a generation of would-be Kenyans. By the Second World War, Kenya was of strategic importance for campaigns against Italian forces. Nearly 100,000 black soldiers, askaris, fought for Britain in the King's African Rifles. At the end of the war they wanted to keep their improved status, and became a vanguard for African nationalism.
Jomo Kenyatta, the charismatic son of Kikuyu farmers educated at the London School of Economics, demanded a political voice for Africans. He would go to prison for leading the Mau Mau uprising which began in 1952. Thousands were killed on both sides. In 1957, the first native Africans were elected. Rather than placate nationalist fervour, it fuelled it, and in 1963 Kenyatta's Kenyan African National Union formed the first government. He proclaimed the Republic of Kenya a year later. Tom Peck