Love him or loathe him, there’s no questioning his influence: this year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has done more than any other African to shape the destiny of both his country and his continent. From defying the International Criminal Court to beating back Al Shabaab in Somalia to militarising the Kenyan state, Kenyatta has been an almost permanent fixture in the headlines (and not always for the right reasons). SIMON ALLISON examines his controversial record.
Studying Uhuru Kenyatta, one gets the sense that he was never really in charge of his own destiny. As son of Kenya’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, he was born into political royalty and privilege; even his name, Uhuru (meaning ‘Freedom’ in Swahili) is a political statement. After the very finest education that Kenya could provide, and an enormously successful stint as a well-connected businessman that helped turn the Kenyatta family into Kenya’s richest, his entry into politics was inevitable, as were the high positions which his family name and connections guaranteed.
Not that it all came easily. His first tilt at a parliamentary seat – not just any seat, but his father’s old position – ended in a humiliating defeat, but this only made Kenyatta more determined to live up to expectations; and, perhaps even more importantly, to carve out his own legacy, separate from his family past.
That he has now done so is beyond debate. For better or worse, 2014 marks the year when President Kenyatta rose above his own history to make his own mark on Kenya, with his influence extending far beyond his country’s borders.
Most prominent has been his ultimately victorious battle with the International Criminal Court, which has been waged far beyond the confines of the courtroom in The Hague. In frustrating the prosecution’s efforts to try him on charges of crimes against humanity, relating to his role in the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya which left more than 1,000 people dead, Kenyatta mobilised the African diplomatic community to oppose the court and its perceived biases against Africans. This was a rare instance of genuine pan-African unity, even if its motivation was leaders’ own self-interest. Kenya’s vehement position on international justice also led to the resolution in June to give African leaders and senior officials immunity from prosecution at the proposed new African Court of Justice and Human Rights.
The international pressure on the court contributed to the prosecution’s decision on 3 December to withdraw the charges against Kenyatta. ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda maintains that there is still a case for him to answer, but that there just isn’t enough evidence to guarantee a conviction; and, tellingly, that the Kenyan government has failed to cooperate fully with the court in providing key documents.
This, of course, is hardly a surprise, given that the accused is the head of that government. Even if Kenyatta was not directly responsible for Kenya’s intransigence, it is hard to believe that the government would have been as obstinate had a political rival been in charge. It is also hard to believe that the concerted campaign of intimidation mounted against witnesses in the case would have been conducted in such an atmosphere of impunity.
The danger of Kenyatta’s defence is the example that it sets to others charged with similarly grievous offences. Kenyatta has shown that the best way to prevent answering directly for his alleged crimes is to increase his power and influence over the state; others in his position will doubtless follow suit.
The ICC has been only one part of the Kenyatta story in 2014. Another major element has been the continuation of the Kenyan military incursion into Somalia, which is entering its fourth year. Kenyan troops are now incorporated into the African Union, and have made significant inroads against Al Shabaab. The Islamist militant group – always the primary target of the intervention – has been pushed out of most major strongholds, and deprived of key revenue sources. While this has yet to contribute to a more stable or prosperous Somalia, it’s an important start, provided that the Somali government and its foreign allies can get the political process right.
For Kenya, the main consequence of its Somali adventure has been a spate of terrorist attacks on the home front as Al Shabaab make good on their promise to wreak vengeance on Kenya. Hundreds have died this year in dozens of separate attacks (the bloodiest being the Mpeketoni attack, which killed more than 60 people), with Kenyan security forces powerless to protect citizens.
Kenya’s increasingly hardline counter-terrorism measures have not appeared to help. In an effort to appear tough and strong on terrorism, Kenyatta has overseen a nasty, indiscriminate wave of arrests targeted at ethnic Somalis (even those of Kenyan descent); and a series of extrajudicial killings and incidents of torture committed by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit. He is also increasingly relying on the military to counter Al Shabaab domestically, in the process blurring the lines between military and police competencies. The Mail & Guardian Africa’s Lee Mwiti describes Kenyatta’s domestic initiatives as creating “soft military state”. It’s a dangerous path, and runs contrary to Kenya’s long history of strong civilian government.
On a more positive note, Kenyatta has also spearheaded the regional drive towards greater cooperation and integration within the East African Community (EAC). This year, the EAC introduced a single tourist visa linking Kenya with Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda; and implemented a Single Customs Territory between the same four countries. In addition, Kenya has joined Rwanda in abolishing work permit fees for EAC nationals, thereby removing a major barrier to commercial integration.
In choosing the Daily Maverick’s African of the Year 2014, we looked at who on the continent had made the most impact throughout the course of this year. Other candidates included Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, who has transformed his guerilla movement into a genuine alternative government in some parts of Nigeria; and Burkina Faso’s Colonel Zida, whose support for the public protestors was the final straw for would-be president-for-life Blaise Compaore, who rushed into exile.
Kenyatta, however, was the obvious choice, thanks to the sheer scale of his influence. He leads a major foreign intervention in Somalia; he is a key player in the African Union, and has used this position to devastating effect to undermine the ICC; he is driving much-needed regional integration in East Africa; and, most significantly, he is using the terrorist threat to re-mould the foundations of the Kenyan state, which remains one of Africa’s most important countries both economically and politically. He hasn’t always been in the headlines for the right reasons, but nonetheless, this year he’s dominated them. DM
Photo: A file photo dated 09 March 2013 shows Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta smiling after winning in 2013 Presidential election in Nairobi, Kenya. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on 05 December that they are withdrawing the case against Kenyatta, saying that the evidence they have against him is not sufficient to sustain the case. Kenyatta had been facing charges on crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding violence that killed some 1,300 after disputed 2007-08 Presidential election. EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU.
- Analysis: Kenyatta escapes the ICC, and shows others how it’s done on Daily Maverick
- How not to counter terrorism: the Kenyan edition on Daily Maverick
- Al Shabaab’s sting in tail? on Daily Maverick
- Al-Shabaab’s greatest achievement could be remaking Kenya into a soft military state on Mail & Guardian Africa