Luis Moreno-Ocampo can scarcely have travelled to a nation where the court he serves is more popular than in Kenya. A decisive majority of Kenyans – 68 per cent according to one opinion poll – want the perpetrators of last year’s deadly post-election violence tried at The Hague.
That is a stunningly high number for a court whose interventions often attract hostility from the state targeted. The enthusiasm for the ICC stems from the low level of faith Kenyans have in their own institutions.
The police force regularly tops lists of the least trusted people in the country. When, a few years ago, the paramilitary unit of the force known as the General Service Unit organised a parade through the streets of a city where they have a base, the streets quickly emptied as panicked citizens fled from the approaching band, mistakenly thinking they had arrived to quell a riot.
The local judiciary fares little better in the public’s estimate. Only 27 per cent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll said they have faith in the courts. The fact that people view the courts as corrupt and inefficient probably explains why opposition supporters resorted to violence following claims the presidential election had been rigged.
The challenge for Mr Moreno-Ocampo as he seeks to prosecute the masterminds of the violence is that the political elite are as unenthusiastic about trials at The Hague as the public are keen on seeing justice done. It is widely thought that the suspects believed to have financed the militias which unleashed the wave of violence which left over 1,000 people dead include at least three serving cabinet ministers. Since the ICC does not have its own enforcement mechanism, it relies on the local government to arrest the suspects. That is likely to prove politically complicated for President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, chiefly because the likely targets for arrest hail from major ethnic groups and are key allies of the coalition leaders.
There is also the danger that any arrests will trigger fresh violence in a nation yet to heal from the effects of the violence. This prospect of renewed fighting has not reduced Kenyans’ desire to see action taken on the suspects. The dominant view expressed in newspaper editorials and radio phone-ins is that inaction will help entrench the culture of impunity that runs through Kenya’s political system and will render a repeat of last year’s more likely.
It is a point easily lost to many outside Kenya that the chaos in the aftermath of the December 2007 General Election was not without precedent in Kenya. According to Human Rights Watch, 1,500 people died in politically instigated violence during elections in 1992 and 1997.
Nobody was ever brought to justice for those atrocities. Local politicians would probably have got away with murder again if the task of delivering justice had been left to local institutions.
But the decision by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to write in a requirement that the perpetrators of the violence should be brought to justice as part of the deal which ended the violence means that the warlords might well have their day in court.
Kenyans who have endured years of virtual impunity are hoping justice will help end the cycle of violence. That is why Mr Moreno-Ocampo, who is more accustomed to being burnt in effigy in places such as Khartoum, is regarded warmly in Kenya. The ICC would do well to grab this chance to deliver justice.
Mutiga writes for the Sunday Nation in Nairobi