Key political risks to watch in Kenya

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The International Criminal Court (ICC) last month indicted Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity during violence that followed a disputed election in 2007. Kenyatta resigned from his cabinet post as a result, but he insisted he will run for president, a move that has divided the east African country.

The ICC’s decision could affect the outcome of general elections due by March 2013 at the latest, a date that is itself a subject of controversy.

All this comes at a time when Kenya is mired in a potentially protracted war against al Qaeda-linked militants in neighbouring Somalia and the economy is straining under the twin loads of high inflation and interest rates, Reuters reports.

Here are some of the risk factors ahead:

ICC DECISION

The 50-year-old Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at half a billion dollars, has caused a political storm over his unbowed quest to become president despite the indictment.

Analysts had predicted Kenyatta’s chances would be seriously damaged if he was indicted, but he was one step ahead of the game by forging an alliance with another presidential hopeful who was also charged by the ICC, former cabinet minister William Ruto.

The coalition government, parliament and the public in general are divided over Kenyatta and Ruto’s candidacy. Close allies of the two say Kenyatta is likely to be the alliance’s flag-bearer.

Rights groups want the High Court to stop the duo from taking part in the race to replace President Mwai Kibaki.

The High Court ruled on Feb. 2 that public discussion of whether Kenyatta and Ruto can run for presidency is banned until the court determines whether the ICC charges disqualifies them. But the two have continued holding political rallies to promote their presidential challenge.

Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, and Ruto, a Kelenjin, were charged by The Hague war crimes court with mobilising youths from their respective ethnic groups to kill each other after the poll. The two say they are innocent, and are appealing against the ICC charges.

They are now united in their bid to block their political nemesis, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, from becoming president.

Odinga’s lead in opinion polls in the race to the country’s helm has been slipping, while Kenyatta’s ratings are rising.

Analysts say political ideology counts for little in Kenya, where tribal alliances are the stepping stones to high office.

What to watch:
– Will the Kenyan High Court bar Kenyatta and Ruto? If so, there would no doubt be appeals and a protracted legal battle ending up at the Supreme Court.
– Are Kenyatta and Ruto going to keep on promoting their presidential ambitions despite the gag order by the court?
– Has the confirmation of the charges against them by the ICC given them a boost or dented their chances? For the time being, it appears to have rallied support among their ethnic power bases.
– Kenyatta, Ruto and the two other accused have lodged appeals against the court’s ruling. Will the ICC agree to hear their appeals and would they eventually be successful?
– If they stand trial, it could be impractical for them to do so over a period of months and still run for office. They may have to decide to back someone else. Who would that be, and what criteria would they base their decision on?
– The ICC did not issue arrest warrants, but said it would if the suspects break certain conditions, including engaging in hate speech that could fan tribal tensions.
– Despite Kenya being an ICC signatory, it has been very critical of the war crimes court and supportive of the Sudanese president avoiding an ICC arrest warrant. Will Nairobi continue cooperating with the ICC if the appeals by the suspects fail?
– Failure to cooperate with the ICC would concern foreign investors and Western governments who want Kenya to combat impunity ahead of the next elections.
– The government says it will ask the ICC to transfer the cases back to Nairobi where it plans to try the crimes against humanity. Could this affect Kenya’s cooperation with the ICC?
– Kenyatta quit his cabinet post but refused to step down as one of the country’s two deputy prime ministers, saying he can only do so if parliament forces him out through a vote of no confidence. Will parliament call his bluff?

ELECTION DATE

The High Court caught many Kenyans off-guard when it ruled on Jan. 13 that the next general elections should be held in March 2013 and not this August, unless the ruling coalition collapsed, forcing a poll within 60 days.

The decision disappointed many Kenyans who want to vote out their legislators sooner, and has created anxiety over whether the coalition will stick together or not. Opinion polls show a majority still favour elections this year and the ruling essentially puts the ball in Kibaki and Odinga’s court.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the government had proposed to postpone the vote to December to give the authority charged with organising the polls more time to prepare. The delay would require a constitutional amendment.

On Feb. 3, Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo said he would still try to push for the December date, with an amendment bill due to be voted on this month. Any constitutional change requires parliament approval.

Kilonzo’s proposal has been divisive among legislators, and has been dismissed by the commission for implementation of the constitution, which wants the elections held next March.

On Feb. 4, Odinga said at a political rally that he wants elections to be held this year. Kibaki is barred by law from contesting a third term.

What to watch:
– It is not clear if Kibaki is ready to dissolve the coalition government this year as per Odinga’s wishes, which could potentially usher in another political tug-of-war.
– Or will Odinga ignite the coalition’s collapse so that elections can be held at a time that could favour him?
– Will the amendment bill be debated and passed, and how much opposition or controversy could this cause?

SOMALIA

Kenya sent troops into Somalia last October to crush al Shabaab, accusing the militant network of attacks on its security forces and tourists inside Kenya. For now, the incursion still has wide backing among Kenyans.



What to watch:
– Kenya says the mission is open-ended and it will stay until al Shabaab’s network is dismantled. But this could take time and may require additional budget support.
– Any attacks by al Shabaab in the capital or key tourist sites might erode backing for the incursion, deter tourists and hurt the economy.