ByJames N. Kariuki*
Not so long ago Third World countries subscribed to the notion of non-alignment in their international relations. The world was then bipolar, divided ideologically between the West and the East. Non-alignment was an assertion that the Third World was not party to the quarrel between the two global blocs. That thinking was enshrined in what came to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement.
Post-colonial Kenya observed the provisions of non-alignment mostly in breach. That was so because the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was at heart an Anglophile. This was ironic given that the same Kenyatta was the vanguard of anti-British colonial activities. Finally, Kenyatta was imprisoned allegedly because he master-minded the Mau Mau rebellion. The British dismissed him as a leader “unto darkness and death.”
Kenya became independent in 1963 and the country’s ironies continued. First, power was handed over to the same Kenyatta whom the British had branded a devilish pervert. Secondly, Kenyatta quickly tilted independent Kenya towards the West.
Outraged, Oginga Odinga objected bitterly and proceeded to write a book, Not Yet Uhuru (1968). Odinga was no ordinary citizen; he was a major anti-colonial nationalist and Kenyatta’s Vice-President. While he agitated for socialism, Kenyatta welcomed British capitalism. Odinga did not realize then that Kenyatta had fought against colonialism, not because he objected to the British socio-economic order, but because of racial discrimination that accompanied British presence.
In the same year that Odinga published his book, Kenyatta released his own, Suffering without Bitterness. That title emphasized that Kenyatta had nothing against the British; he was prepared to work with them. To affirm the point, he proceeded to turn Kenya into a major pro-British fort in Eastern Africa. For good measure, he also built himself into a capitalist tycoon of major proportions.
Kenyatta’s book reeked of forgive-and-forget sentiments towards his former detractors, the British. His son, Uhuru, has now become Kenya’s president which may push the country into the next major irony. Unlike his father, Uhuru seems inclined to the notion: we-may-forgive-but-we-will-not-necessarily-forget. And he does have a grudge against the West.
Uhuru Kenyatta has been inducted by the ICC as a contributor to Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence. Coincidentally, the charges erupted when the credibility of the ICC itself was declining in Africa on the grounds that it targeted African leaders. Yet, critics said, the greatest human rights offenders are Western leaders and, invariably, they walk free. Is the court a tool of the West? Unfortunately for the international court, this view was championed by none other than the African Union. Suddenly, the ICC itself was on trial in global public opinion.
In this anti-ICC atmosphere, it was suspiciously provocative that the West continued posturing as the guardians of human rights in Kenya. In the 2013 campaign, at least, it seemed reprehensible that Westerners became constant reminders that Uhuru and his running-mate were ICC inductees, unworthy of the presidency. Indeed, Uhuru’s Jubilee Alliance was compelled to object bitterly and publicly to “the shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement of the British High Commissioner in Kenya’s election.”
On their part, the Americans went past hints and issued a poorly-veiled threat to the Kenyan voters: ‘choices have consequences.’ Implicit in the statement was a resolve that Western powers would withhold friendship and goodwill to an Uhuru-led government. Similarly, Britain stated that, in the event that Uhuru won the elections, it would maintain only essential contacts with his government. For all practical purposes, the West denied Uhuru the assumption of innocence before proven guilty.
In effect, the Western powers were now campaigning for Uhuru’s major rival, Raila Odinga. For his part, Raila stated that he would win the election; it would not even be close. Kenyans took exception to the Westerners meddling in their domestic affairs. Condemnation of Uhuru’s candidacy backfired, prompting Kenyans’ impulse to give more votes to him. Sympathy votes flowed in abundance.
Regarding the ICC case, many Kenyans believe that Uhuru’s was not a matter of premeditated murder; it was an issue of self-defense. If he got involved in the post-elections’ violence at all he did so, not to harm innocent people, but in defense of reckless human rights violations by others against the Kikuyu. He bravely countered ethnic cleansing where the state had repeatedly failed to do so. Self-defense is an acceptable principle of the law, is it not?
Indeed to many Kenyans Uhuru is a hero, a leader who put himself in harm’s way in a bid to save his people from five-year cycles of senseless savagery. To millions of Kenyans, Uhuru Kenyatta is not a criminal; he is their favorite son. Neither the West nor the ICC can convince them otherwise.
Uhuru’s victory reflects a bewildering self-assertion in Africa, one reminiscent of the non-alignment movement. The popular mood during Kenya’s 2013 election was anti-Western; westerners felt mistrusted and unwanted. Most importantly, Uhuru’s Jubilee Alliance was triggered to protest publicly against Western political intrusion.
Western exploitation of the ICC indictments to discredit Uhuru’s candidacy has left bitter taste in Kenya. This reality has occasioned a public consciousness among Kenyans that to align too closely to the West is ill-advised. It would be the ultimate irony if Uhuru eventually tilts Kenya to the East. He would negate his father’s legacy of turning Kenya West. That is the stuff of history.
*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa.The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.