Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, has pledged his full co-operation with the International Criminal Court as it investigates the role of several cabinet ministers suspected of orchestrating last year’s post-election violence.
The ICC has begun to accelerate its work on Kenya this month and in an interview with the Financial Times Mr Odinga expressed hope that successful prosecutions would eliminate the political violence that has threatened to tear his country apart.
“These trials will help to deal with impunity,” he said. “Politicians have to agree to play by the rules, with different means of campaigns, other than trying to use violence in order to gain advantage over their opponents.”
He was speaking as his coalition government’s relations with both the Kenyan people and the west are at rock bottom due to in-fighting and its failure to deliver reforms and create jobs to tackle the inequalities and injustices behind last year’s violence.
The names of those suspected of organising and funding the violence – which killed more than 1,000 people – have not been made public, but Kenya has been captivated by the ICC’s next moves since the coalition gave up trying to create a local tribunal last month.
If the coalition does not make the reforms promised – to the constitution, the police, the judiciary and land – fears are growing that the 2012 presidential election could trigger more clashes.
Analysts say the best way to avoid conflict is to punish the politicians behind the 2008 violence so others are deterred from using tried-and-trusted techniques of manipulating popular grievances and tribal prejudices to win votes.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, has yet to decide whether he will pursue charges but he is likely to visit Nairobi in the coming weeks.
Kenya’s involvement with the ICC underlines how far its standing has fallen in the last two years, putting the stable, commercial hub of East Africa in the company of failing states like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The court is already a political issue for Mr Odinga, who lost the disputed election to president Mwai Kibaki at the end of 2007, sparking the violence that split Kenya along ethnic lines.
Because Mr Odinga wants to run for president in 2012 he does not want to be inextricably associated with the failings of the 18-month old power-sharing government, but nor does he want to be accused of breaking it apart, which is what some analysts say could happen if ministers were charged by the ICC.
In the interview he defended its performance. “Really we are making a lot of difference,” he said. “This needs to be appreciated because if there’s too much agitation and only the negative is being highlighted, then people are put on the war path, then no progress can be made.”
He brushed off criticism from Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who, after brokering last year’s peace deal, called this month for faster reforms and “more unity of purpose, greater transparency and more concrete action to end impunity and combat corruption”.
Other critics, notably US officials, have said the commissions and panels of experts that the coalition has cited as evidence of progress on reform are being used to delay real action.
“I don’t see where the media is getting the idea that Kenya’s are terrible commissions,” Mr Odinga said. “How can these things be done otherwise? There must be an organised way of doing them.”
The prime minister, a firebrand during three decades as an opposition activist, wants to be seen as a reformer and set himself apart from the old-school politicians reviled for their indifference to ordinary Kenyans, evident most recently during a devastating drought.
That is why he criticised his own government earlier this year and warned in March that Kenya was “hurtling towards failure as a state” after the assassination of two human rights activists.
Since then relations between Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki have improved, but the prime minister continues to struggle against reactionaries on Mr Kibaki’s side of the coalition and against insubordinate members of his own party.
One western diplomat described the prime minister as “disorganised” and the president as “out of touch”.
Still, Mr Odinga is viewed more favourably in the west than Mr Kibaki and his firm support for the ICC is likely to boost his standing. He refused to be drawn, however, on whether the government would arrest ministers for whom the court issued warrants: “We said we are going to co-operate. I want to leave it at that.”