September 24, 2013 6:51 pm

Kenyan president faces moment of transformation

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Uhuru Kenyatta should have been on his way to address the UN General Assembly in New York next weekend. Instead the Kenyan president addressed his nation from Nairobi as it reeled from the worst terror attack in 15 years.

In a simple yellow shirt, he spoke hours after the attack about the courage, sympathy and solidarity of the “wonderful” Kenyan people, and of his own loss.

“I know what you feel having also personally lost very close family members in this attack,” said a wet-eyed Mr Kenyatta, whose nephew and his fiancée were killed in the onslaught. “I urge all Kenyans to stand together and see this dark moment through.”

Mr Kenyatta is used to dark moments. While he spoke of his wish to punish the perpetrators for “this heinous crime”, he stands accused of committing crimes of his own. He is due in the dock of the International Criminal Court to answer charges that he masterminded ethnic violence that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced 600,000.

But the terror attack, his move to reach out to his political opponents at a time of crisis and broad public support for the rescue operation may all help him beef up his position ahead of the trial in The Hague. In effect, the attacks may transform Mr Kenyatta from a champion of his ethnic community to a champion of his nation.

Domestically, his handling of the crisis has elevated his stature; regionally, his push to fight al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, in spite of the terror attack, could curry favour with African Union nations that Kenyan officials hope will support a motion to withdraw from the Treaty of Rome, the legal underpinning of the ICC.

African countries already see the court as biased, as so far it has only prosecuted Africans. Beyond the continent, western capitals may opt to take a softer line over the trials for Mr Kenyatta’s alleged crimes in order to maintain an ally in Kenya to deal with a rise in Islamist terror.

“In a way [the attack] comes at the perfect time for Mr Kenyatta: his standing will be much higher after this than before,” said a senior western diplomat. “He is really being seen as the statesman who is leading his people and uniting them,” the diplomat added.

In turn, Mr Kenyatta would be able to apply yet more pressure on the ICC. The attack has already triggered some small victories for the Kenyan president and William Ruto, deputy president. The ICC this weekend released Mr Ruto briefly from his trial to return home because of the attack on the Westgate Centre. In a conciliatory speech, Mr Ruto praised “our international friends” who have supported Kenya during the hostage crisis.

William Hague, UK foreign secretary, praised Kenya for its efforts to save lives in the four-day ordeal.

Mr Kenyatta’s confidants say he is determined to revamp his security services in the wake of the attack and will continue to co-operate with the ICC. But he will also pursue his request to attend trial by video conference with renewed vigour. Potentially, western countries could see his request to remain in Nairobi handling the business of his country, rather than attending the trial physically, more favourably in the wake of the hostage crisis, although on Tuesday the ICC turned down a request to delay the trial until January.

A close adviser to Mr Kenyatta says the president will emerge from the crisis “a lot stronger”. He says the president’s message to the ICC will be: “Look I’m having all these challenges. I think if you have good intentions for the long-term peace and stability for this region it’s not too much to ask to agree we don’t have to be physically present at The Hague.”

Mr Kenyatta has also always argued that his election pact with Mr Ruto – their supporters were adversaries during the 2008 violence – delivered peace for the country. That claim has regularly looked shaky, especially to those who argue impunity merely raises the chance of violence at future elections. But in the aftermath of the attack, he has also put on a united front with his opposition, delivering joint statements and making joint hospital visits – a change for a country used to bitter ethnic and political division.

“Now the ICC will have an even stronger adversary,” said the senior western diplomat.

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