Green and blue strobe lights cut through a smoke-filled room in the YMCA office building turned music-video recording studio in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in February. Standing under a Kenyan flag painted on the ceiling, Juliani, possibly Kenya’s most popular hip-hop star, belts out the lyrics to his newest single, “Voters vs. Vultures,” an energizing song that hurls insults at the country’s current political class and urges Kenyans to “vote wisely.”
The music video was released just weeks before Kenya’s highly anticipated March 4 election and was produced to capture frustration with out-of-touch politicians who “didn’t shed blood [but] are the ones who led,” as Juliani sings. The lyrics aren’t just an artistic metaphor. Five years ago, vicious ethnic fighting—stoked by politicians and gangs loyal to them, and made more violent by the brutal response from Kenyan police—over the disputed presidential race left an estimated 1,300 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and four prominent Kenyan leaders facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity.
Despite those charges, two of the men indicted by the ICC are now running on a joint ticket for president and deputy president in a close race that they very well could win. Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta is one of the country’s richest men and a son of Kenya’s first president; his running mate, William Ruto, was a high-school teacher who rose to become a government minister.
Kenyatta and Ruto are running against Prime Minister Raila Odinga, heir of another Kenyan political dynasty; his father served as the country’s first vice president while Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was president. A longtime opposition leader at 68 years old, Odinga has vied for the presidency twice before, and the upcoming election is widely seen as his last shot at the State House. He took up his current post as part of a power-sharing agreement to end the violence in the aftermath of the contested 2007 election. Recent polls predict a close race, with the two frontrunners’ tickets each garnering 44 percent of the vote, according to the international market-research firm Ipsos Synovate. (Six other candidates are expected to share the remaining votes.) If no candidate receives more than half of the votes in the first round, the runoff between the top two contenders is slated to take place in early April—coinciding with the scheduled start of Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s trials in The Hague, though the ICC’s chief prosecutor indicated as this piece went to press that she would consider shifting the trials to August.
“The ICC is part and parcel of the Kenyan political process right now,” says Kwendo Opanga, a political commentator and columnist for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper. “The current general election is about the last general election.”
Many Kenyans will vote for Odinga as a vote against electing leaders indicted by the ICC, says Gabrielle Lynch, Kenya specialist and associate professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. “Lots of people feel that Raila hasn’t done a particularly impressive job as prime minister and that he’s not really the young reformist that he used to be, and that he’s not completely clean of corruption. But many people who are pro-reform and for change will vote for him as a negative vote against Uhuru and Ruto, because they know that he’s the most likely person to beat them,” Lynch says.
But some voters say they are weighing their concern about having a president indicted by the ICC with fear of electing a leader who seems apt to follow the long tradition in Kenyan politics of awarding positions of power, influence, and financial gain to members of one’s own ethnic community—the concept of “It’s our turn to eat.” As the poll date nears, fear of “retaliation” from an Odinga presidency is a common refrain among voters who say they support Kenyatta, even begrudgingly.
“Mr. Raila is a hugely polarizing figure. He has been detained three times [by previous governments as an opposition leader]. He believes, as do his supporters, that he won the last general elections and that it was stolen from him. When people look at those ... factors, they tend to think that he is someone who would be on a revenge mission,” says Opanga, the political commentator, adding that he has seen “no evidence” that Odinga would govern this way.
Impressions of the ICC are also playing to Kenyatta’s favor in a country where ICC opponents charge that the court is a Western intervention and where ethnic allegiance and rivalry still carry considerable sway. It is a common view among members of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, that in 2008 Kenyatta just did what he had to in order to protect his community from targeted attacks after the election. The idea, explains Lynch, the Kenya specialist, is that “if Kenyatta is guilty” of organizing violence, then he also “helped end the political impasse and bring the violence to an end.”
While Kenyatta has said that he will cooperate with the ICC, some believe that if he and Ruto are elected, they will capitalize on the national endorsement to sidestep the international court entirely. “Uhuru and Ruto have no plans to go to the ICC. That’s their calculation; that’s why they want to win badly,” says Boniface Mwangi, a political activist and photographer who received international acclaim for his startlingly raw images of the 2007–08 post-election violence. His view is a common one.
In an extended interview with Al Jazeera English in late January, Kenyatta said he and Ruto would appear at The Hague. But the interview hints at the likely rhetoric to explain their rationale if they choose not to comply: “If Kenyans do vote for us, it will mean that Kenyans themselves have questioned ... the process that has landed us at the International Criminal Court,” Kenyatta said.
Whether or not Kenyatta and Ruto snub the ICC, their election would force foreign governments to make some tough decisions regarding their continued partnerships with Kenya—regional economic powerhouse, tourism hub, friend of the West, and crucial partner in fighting extremism in Somalia and fostering peace in Sudan and South Sudan. U.S. President Barack Obama underscored this strategic link by recording a YouTube message to Kenyans, calling for a peaceful election that “reflects the will of the people.” Pressed by journalists for details on how the U.S. government would react to a Kenyatta-Ruto victory, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson repeatedly remarked during a media briefing in early February, “Choices have consequences.” The phrase was quickly interpreted in Kenya as a euphemism for the U.S. government’s anti-Kenyatta stance and dismissed by Kenyatta’s party as a threat to sway voters.
Whatever the outcome, the ICC cases against Kenyatta, Ruto, and two other Kenyans are already affecting the tone of this year’s election, analysts say. In contrast to the election in 2007, when politicians and their supporters took to the radio waves and made public speeches inciting violence, this time around “most influential people are not getting directly involved,” says a Kenyan analyst, who asked for anonymity out of security concerns. “People are now learning to dodge the ICC.”
Instead of media appeals, politicians are working more subtly with local-level supporters to mobilize masses in the event that they want to deter voters from turning out or to dispute results. And Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele, warns that “violence is not inevitable but the warning signs are too bright to ignore.” The organization issued a report in February suggesting that “the underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place, and in some parts of the country the tensions have escalated.”
The only thing that will break up those volatile networks, says the anonymous Kenyan analyst, is for Kenyans to see that they will face consequences through the Kenyan courts for inciting violence at any level. Kenyans approved a new Constitution in 2010 that instated some important reforms of the judicial system, but if history is a guide it’s far from clear that the Kenyan courts will crack down on violence. Out of 5,000 files connected to post-election crimes in 2007–08, only 14 people have been convicted in Kenya, according to a report published on Friday by Human Rights Watch.
“The communities are preparing—they are arming themselves,” one local activist told the rights group. “All over they are saying: ‘This time we won’t be unprepared.’”
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