It’s official: Kenya’s electoral authority registered Wednesday the candidacies for president and vice-president of two individuals currently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on counts of crimes against humanity. Deputy P.M. and presidential hopeful Uhuru Kenyatta and his running-mate William Ruto are, it should be noted, high in the running to lead Kenya. As one might imagine, this is problematic.
On March 4th, the country will go to the polls to elect a new president. This will be the first election under a new and progressive constitution, a constitution that overwhelmingly and peacefully received a stamp of approval from Kenyans in a 2010 referendum. That vote showed the ability of Kenyans to conduct a polling exercise with significant ramifications for the future of the country in a peaceful manner. The March 4th elections will also be the first since the polls in December 2007 that were marked by post-election ethnic violence the likes of which had never before been witnessed in Kenya. Over 1200 were killed and upwards of 600,000 displaced.
An International Criminal Court investigation into the responsibility for the 2007-2008 violence led to the eventual confirmation of charges against Kenyatta and Ruto. Their trials at the Hague will begin in early April 2013. The two are in the midst of a campaign in what looks like to be another close and ethnically tinged election. Recent opinion polls of candidate approval show Kenyatta running a close second behind fellow presidential candidate and current prime minister Raila Odinga.
It should be noted that the indicted are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that they have every right to due process. However, the indictments raise some troubling questions: What if Kenyatta were to win the election? How would he and his running mate govern in what is likely to be a tense post-election period while standing trial at the Hague? Should anyone charged with such serious and devastating crimes even be running for the presidency and be considered a serious contender? Why would Kenyans let this happen? The Kenyan citizenry has shown itself to be civically engaged and very active. Witness the outrage when elected officials recently attempted to send themselves off with hefty retirement perks to be paid for by the Kenyan taxpayer. With this kind of population, it is curious that Kenyans have not come out against the candidacies of Kenyatta and Ruto. Perhaps it is a sign of a penchant for dynastic politics — Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta — or perhaps it is a repudiation of the investigation and case against the accused by the International Criminal Court.
Whatever the cause may be, the people of Kenya will have their voices heard on March 4th. In an increasingly tense climate where some politically incited clashes have already erupted in the Tana Delta region of the country, the main concern leading up to the vote should be security, as it should be in the period after the elections. Kenyans should, then, focus on electing leaders who can guarantee this security. Which would seem to forbid their electing leaders who manipulate ethnic tensions to their personal benefit and who will instead speak to addressing what ails the country socially, economically, and politically. Candidates who, for example, have a plan to tackle youth unemployment — as opposed to those ready to pay economically desperate young people a pittance to carry out acts of violence against supporters of opponents, as Kenyatta has been accused by the ICC of doing.
A peaceful outcome of this next election is crucially important. The country is on a trajectory of steady growth that could speed up significantly in the next several years with ongoing infrastructure development and innovation in science and technology, as well as the commercial potential of recent oil and natural gas discoveries. Violence on the scale, or even worse, of what was witnessed in the 2007 – 2008 post election period would not only halt this growth, but set the country back significantly. Not to mention the cost in human life and psychological trauma that would accompany a repeat of such horrors. It would behoove the government and people of Kenya, and the international community — despite the threats from government spokesman Muthui Kariuki to “set . . . on fire” those foreign journalists whose stories are deemed too “polarizing” — to do all in their power to ensure a peaceful election and transition of power, even while respecting the pursuit of justice with the ICC cases. The future of the country depends on it.