Kenyan presidential candidate faces trial for crimes against humanity the day after election
Published 10/02/2013 | 13:01
His friends say he is the nice guy of Kenya's dirty political world: the mild-mannered scion of its greatest family, a pro-business reformer whose gentlemanly demeanour marks him out among his rivals. Yet Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, is accused of taking part in the country's most terrible crimes since independence in 1963.
Three weeks away from the first round of voting in a general election, he is neck and neck with his main opponent in a contest that many expect will make him president.
Yet if the vote goes to a second round, as expected, and Mr Kenyatta is sworn in on April 10, his first task will be to defend himself at The Hague on April 11, the first day of his trial for alleged crimes against humanity.
When violence erupted after the previous presidential election in 2007, he is accused of being among the politicians who instigated the mobs that murdered 1,300 Kenyans and burnt homes across the country, forcing half a million to flee and destroying the nation's reputation as an African bastion of stability.
He is now bracketed with the continent's warlords and bloody dictators, and if he is elected president Kenya could lurch overnight from being one of the most successful nations in Africa to a diplomatic outcast, shunned by the West. Foreign diplomats underlined that point last week by warning that they would cold-shoulder Mr Kenyatta if he is the victor.
But Mr Kenyatta, who insists he is innocent of all charges, says he is not in the least bit worried about any of this.
"This is not putting off the voters at all," he said. "They are looking at our agenda, at the issues. That is how they will make their decision."
He spoke exclusively to The Sunday Telegraph on Saturday on the sidelines of a boisterous rally in the city of Eldoret, scene of some of the worst atrocities in 2007. Then, mobs hacked or stabbed their ethnic enemies to death, or trapped them in churches and burnt them alive.
For a few terrifying days it looked as if Kenya, which has shopping malls, computer entrepreneurs, and a growing middle class, could turn into a new Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch warned last week that the risk of more violence was "perilously high" and quoted a Kenyan who said: "The communities are preparing – they are arming themselves. All over, they are saying: 'This time we won't be unprepared.'"
Foreign governments are so worried about Mr Kenyatta's campaign success that in the past week the British, French and Americans all took the unusual step of going public with their fears to Kenyans.
The British High Commissioner to Kenya, Dr Christian Turner, had the greatest impact, going live on the popular Citizen Television station to say that Britain would not talk to any of the four Kenyans indicted by the ICC "unless it was essential" – he clearly meant Mr Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, who is also indicted.
Although Dr Turner used diplomatic language, what he was really saying was that Kenya, one of Britain's closest allies and biggest aid recipients, would become a pariah state under a President Kenyatta, in the same league as Sudan or Zimbabwe.
Mr Kenyatta grinned widely at the mention of Dr Turner's television appearance. His campaign team believes that, far from being put off by the ICC charges, Kenyan voters are turning to him because of what they see as meddling by the former colonial power.
"In actual fact, the negative impact is on the British. Kenyans are showing they are not keen on foreigners telling them what to do," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "If anything, his remarks helped us out."
He also hinted that if elected, he would change Kenya's orientation away from Britain, which is still a major trading partner. "Many countries are willing to deal with Kenya. We have a good relationship with China, it is growing year by year. And when one door closes another opens," he said.
He brushed aside the threat of sanctions, although his rivals are starting to bring this up in the campaign and point out that Mr Kenyatta's election could quickly bring grievous hurt to Kenya's economy.
Whatever his problems, Mr Kenyatta was in many ways born to be president.
His first name, Uhuru, means "freedom" in Swahili, and his surname carries great weight in Kenya. He is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of the nation who was jailed by the British for seven years during the struggle against colonial rule, before becoming president and ruling a one-party state.
Mr Kenyatta junior has served as finance minister, and is currently deputy prime minister. Now he hopes to follow in his father's footsteps and return to the presidential palace, where he was born. After school in Kenya, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, USA, studying business and political science. He has a wife and three children.
To a man with such a burden of history and expectation on his shoulders, the ICC indictment was personally wounding. "It is especially bad when you know you are innocent, and charged with such horrible crimes," he said.
"It has had a terrible impact on my career and my family. It has been a burden. When the truth does come out, the world will be shocked."
He would not discuss the details of the International Criminal Court's case against him, but his team insists the evidence is flimsy and say it rests on one witness who has frequently changed his story.
His supporters argue that his prosecution is politically motivated by his enemies at home and abroad. Some say that Britain, the third biggest financial contributor to the ICC, much prefers his election rival, Raila Odinga, a western favourite who has been groomed for power for years.
Mr Kenyatta kept a diplomatic silence when asked about this, but looked as if he was bursting to speak – and promised to do so when his legal problems are solved.
The latest polls show him on 43 per cent, just behind Mr Odinga on 45 per cent, but it is Mr Kenyatta's campaign which has a sense of momentum and his supporters seem very confident of victory.
Mr Kenyatta's main policy objective is to introduce far-reaching land reform, giving thousands of small Kenyan farmers and slum-dwellers the right to own property, with the effect of enabling them to get credit, start businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. He also promises to get tough on corruption.
Mr Odinga has promised to introduce universal health care and free education to university level if he is re-elected. His economic growth plans, he has said, will create a million new jobs.
The violence which has left such a poisonous legacy in Kenya broke out with the first results from the extraordinarily close presidential election in December 2007.
Things quickly got out of hand after Mr Odinga, then the challenger, claimed that he was the true winner and said his victory had been stolen by the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, whom Mr Kenyatta supported.
Mr Kibaki – who has served two terms as president and is not running again – declared himself the victor hours after the polls closed, while the result was still in dispute.
As Mr Kibaki was sworn in as president, mobs of furious Odinga supporters, mostly from the Luo tribe, started attacking their Kikuyu neighbours, who voted for Mr Kibaki and Mr Kenyatta. They were stirred up by demagogues, inflammatory phone texts and radio phone-in hosts who whipped up tribal hatreds.
As the dust slowly settled, Kofi Annan, the former head of the United Nations, came in to broker a coalition government which included all three men: Mr Kibaki, Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta. The ICC was called in by Kenya's parliament as a relatively neutral way to seek justice.
The accusation against Mr Kenyatta is that he met criminals from a notorious gang called the Munggiki in Nairobi and urged them to carry out revenge attacks against Mr Odinga's supporters. It is a familiar story in African politics – the big man giving the green light to the thugs in his own community to go out and teach his enemies a lesson. Many Kenyans doubt it, and believe he may have done no more than organise some tough characters to help protect his own community.
The charges certainly don't seem to have stifled campaign enthusiasm. His team flew into the Saturday rally in six helicopters – Forbes magazine has described him as Kenya's richest man – before he drove into Eldoret in triumph.
"These young men need jobs. That is what my campaign is about," he said before plunging into a cheering crowd to shake hands, his red Jubilee coalition baseball cap balanced precariously. on his head. But there can be no doubt that the ICC indictment hurts his campaign.
"Our voters are juvenile. They do not understand anything beyond voting for the representative of their tribe and they don't realise how much trouble this could cause Kenya," said John Origi, a civil servant from Nairobi.
Apart from anything else, Mr Kenyatta could soon have the problem of trying to run Kenya from a Dutch courtroom where he must defend himself for the course of a three-year trial, although his lawyers say they hope to get the case dropped.
If he loses the election, at least he knows what will happen next.
As one wag wrote in a letter to a Nairobi newspaper last week: "President Odinga will put him in a military helicopter and fly him straight to the court in Holland."
Nick Meo Telegraph.co.uk