Murithi Mutiga: Trial may bring justice... or rekindle tribal violence

Hope intermingled with dread. That is the complex mix of emotions sweeping through Kenya following the announcement of the names of the six suspects expected to stand trial for the atrocities that followed the botched 2007 general election.

In the short term, there is the fear of violence perpetrated by militias loyal to some of the leaders headed for trial at The Hague. That these militias have never been demobilised is a legacy of the fact that the coalition government cobbled together to end the fighting brought together some of the political leaders suspected of instigating the massive unrest that brought the nation to the edge of civil war after the disputed elections.

A vast majority of Kenyans support the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try the six men suspected of bearing greatest responsibility for the violence. ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is hugely popular. His image beams down from Nairobi's ubiquitous passenger vans as Kenyans who long ago gave up on ever seeing members of the political elite being held to account, eagerly await the prospect of ICC justice. Though most Kenyans are unaware that the ICC process can drag on for years.

As the leaders of two major ethnic blocs – the Kalenjin kingpin William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu – face ICC action, it remains to be seen what effect a lengthy trial will have on the fragile political scene in Kenya if judges give the go-ahead for trials.

Another big unanswered question is what effect the naming of Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Muthaura will have. Mr Muthaura is viewed as President Mwai Kibaki's right-hand man. Ever since the rumour hit that he could be one of those indicted, State House appeared to withdraw its earlier support for ICC trials.

The ICC must understand that the stakes have never been higher. A successful trial of the Kenyan suspects will contribute to national healing and be a warning to other members of the political elite that nobody is beyond the reach of international law when they commit crimes against humanity. Failure of the case, however, may sink Kenya deeper into political uncertainty.

Murithi Mutiga is a columnist for the Sunday Nation in Nairobi, Kenya