Kenyans packed a stadium to witness the swearing in of Uhuru Kenyatta as president on Tuesday after a peaceful election that has left Western nations with the challenge of how to deal with a leader indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Many Kenyans hope the son of the nation’s independence hero will live up to his pledge to be a leader for all and not just work for people from his own ethnic group, a practice they have come to expect from their politicians.
For Western states, big donors to east Africa’s biggest economy, Kenya is a vital player in the regional battle against militant Islam. But they now have to juggle their wish for close ties with a policy of limiting contacts with those indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Reuters reports.
The United States and European powers said they would send ambassadors to attend Kenyatta’s inauguration ceremony – a level of representation diplomats said was still in line with their position of having only “essential contacts” with indictees.
“They find themselves in a very difficult position,” said Kenya expert Daniel Branch at Britain’s Warwick University. “My sense is everyone will find some method of accommodation.”
If the West slips up, it also risks opening more space to China and other Asian powers that are gaining both political and trading influence in Africa.
Sitting alongside the Western envoys will be about a dozen African heads of state, as well as prime ministers and other top officials. China and India, neither signatories to the statutes that set up the ICC, are sending senior government officials.
But Western ambassadors will be saved one awkward moment. A Kenyan official said the ceremony would not be attended by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with genocide in The Hague and faces an arrest warrant for not cooperating.
Tens of thousands of Kenyans, many waving flags, gathered for the ceremony at a Nairobi stadium from the early morning.
“This is a new beginning,” said Elija Toroitich, a 56-year old farmer at the stadium who voted for Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, who also faces ICC charges. “We expect a lot from them due to the pledges they made in their manifesto.”
He and others want Kenyatta, a 51-year-old former finance minister whose family controls a sprawling business empire, to deliver faster economic growth and help swathes of poor in the nation of more than 40 million people.
“My government will work with and serve all Kenyans without any discrimination whatsoever,” Kenyatta said in an address after his election victory was upheld by the Supreme Court following a challenge by his main rival Raila Odinga.
Kenyatta and Ruto have promised to cooperate in The Hague to clear their names, denying charges of crimes against humanity and allegations they helped organize tribal-fuelled violence after the disputed 2007 election in which 1,200 were killed.
In the 2007 election, Kenyatta, from the Kenya’s largest tribe the Kikuyu, and Ruto, a Kalenjin, supported opposing presidential candidates.
Western diplomats have indicated they will take a “pragmatic” line in dealing with Kenyatta’s government, but said much would depend on his cooperation with the court.
In an early sign of Western determination to keep a close partnership with Kenya, U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec met Kenyatta last week for the first time since his election and EU ambassadors put in a request for a session with him.
“We will continue to engage with the government of Kenya,” said one European diplomat, saying that the ICC charges were against individuals, not the nation.
An EU official said the meeting requested with Kenyatta aimed to “clear the air” over speculation that the West would impose sanctions on Kenya if Kenyatta won. “No one is talking of sanctions,” the official told Reuters.
Although some Kenyatta aides talk of a swivel east if the West spurns Kenya, the U.S.-educated Kenyatta may be just as concerned about any deterioration in ties with the EU, a big donor and significant importer of Kenyan produce, and Washington, which provides about $900 million in aid a year.
An Asian diplomat said Kenya could not easily switch away from Western markets, even if ties with Asia were growing.
A big portion of Kenya’s horticultural exports head to Europe and many tourists, another source of hard currency, come from there. Western oil and gas firms are also major players in Kenya’s emerging hydrocarbons industry.