Kenya's Message to the West

Kenyan president elect Uhuru Kenyatta, center, and his vice-presidential candidate William Ruto wave at supporters after winn
Kenyan president elect Uhuru Kenyatta, center, and his vice-presidential candidate William Ruto wave at supporters after winning the elections in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, March 9, 2013. Kenya's election commission posted complete results early Saturday showing that Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta prevailed in the country's presidential elections by the slimmest of margins, winning 50.03 percent of the vote.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Uhuru Kenyatta's disputed election to the presidency of Kenya earlier this month raises a host of questions regarding its legality, Kenyatta's indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC), and whether Kenya will become isolated as a result. As Kenya becomes increasingly important in the regional fight against militant groups such as Harakat al-Shabaab, and a transit point for aid and goods to South Sudan, what happens in Kenya impacts others in the region. In this context, East Africa has an interest in Kenya's political leadership not being impeded by a lengthy war crimes trial at The Hague.

The son of Kenya's founder and one of Africa's wealthiest individuals, Kenyatta was indicted by the ICC last year, along with his running mate William Ruto, for allegedly financing death squads following the 2007 presidential election. The indictment did not prevent more than six million Kenyans from voting for Kenyatta, however. While of course denying the charges, Kenyatta has vowed to cooperate with the ICC, but he may be hedging his bets that the charges will be dropped. If the charges stand, it is unlikely that Kenyatta would in any event would attend his trial in The Hague as a sitting President.

Some analysts contend that Kenyatta's popularity underscores a common perception, held by many in Kenya, that the ICC unfairly targets individuals from Africa and serves the interests of western powers by meddling in the affairs of African states. Kenyatta wrapped his campaign in unbridled nationalism, in essence stating that a vote for him was a vote in favor of Kenya's sovereignty. That approach earned him the presidency.

This points to a larger trend in an Africa increasingly willing to selectively challenge the West - whether it be diplomatically, politically, in terms of conditions tied to aid, human rights, or foreign judgments - in an increasingly multipolar world in which Africans balance relations with western and other powers. Despite the establishment in 2007 of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM - America's military command in Africa), as Africa matures politically and economically, more African leaders are espousing their nations' independence and asserting sovereignty over domestic affairs.

While a laudable objective, this is unfortunately being used by some unscrupulous politicians for their own ends. Much of Africa remains the worst offenders in terms of corruption and nepotism, human rights abuses remain rampant, and many African states are not yet ready to stand on their own two feet. Transparency International ranked Kenya 139th out of 176 countries in terms of most corrupt countries in 2012. Some sources claim that Kenyatta's family owns over half a million acres of land in Kenya, and that the land was not paid for.

Western governments are sending ambiguous messages in response. Prior to the election, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Carson warned Kenyan voters of "consequences" if Kenyatta was elected president. After the election, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement congratulating Kenyans on the vote and promising that the U.S. would remain "a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people". Officials from the U.S. and other western governments have implied that they would avoid "non-essential conduct" with a Kenyan government whose leaders are indicted for crimes against humanity.

Given that the U.S. and EU accounted for less than 18 percent of Kenya's imports in 2011, it is questionable how much of an impact western sanctions would have on Kenya, in the unlikely event an embargo were imposed. That said, 32 percent of Kenya's exports are sent to the U.S. and EU, so the West is well positioned to apply economic pressure on Nairobi if it wishes. For such sanctions to prove effective, Washington would need the EU's cooperation, however, as Europe is the destination for over a quarter of Kenyan exports, while the U.S. receives less than 4 percent of Kenyan exports. If western-led efforts to isolate Iran, Syria and Sudan serve as any lesson, any similar moves to isolate Kenya would likely only push Nairobi closer to Beijing, particularly given the dramatic increase in bilateral trade between China and Kenya in recent years.

Considering that Kenya is an important host of AFRICOM, is an important strategic ally, is playing an increasingly important role in the battle against terrorism, and that Washington has no interest in witnessing Kenya succumb to greater Chinese influence, we expect the Obama Administration to be reluctant to implement any actions that would fundamentally alter U.S.-Kenya relations -- regardless of Kenyatta's standing with the ICC -- and expect that the Obama Administration will choose its words carefully going forward.

Perhaps the more important component of the election was the absence of significant violence, which plagued the 2007 poll and was fresh in the minds of many voters. While accusations of voting irregularities were of course leveled by Raila Odinga, the sitting Prime Minister, given that Kenyatta received less than .10% over the 50% majority vote required to win under Kenyan law, violence did not follow. This is evidence that Kenyans are capable of refraining from becoming their own worst enemy, and that the political process has matured notably in the past five years. Still, Kenya must confront the remainder of its many demons, including corruption, nepotism, and human rights abuses before it may be said that the country has truly matured politically.

Kenya now stands at the forefront of an emerging Africa that knows what it wants and what it does not - from itself and from outside powers. Kenyans remain weary of the creeping influence of China, but by the same token are questioning some long held assumptions about the U.S. and the West. The very fact that Kenyans would elect an indicted war criminal -- who may have been complicit in the killing of many of their own countrymen -- as their President, speaks of an orientation to the larger stakes at hand. The most important message that is being sent by Kenyans, and other African people and nations in other ways at the present time, is that Africa wants to break the historical vestiges of colonialism and not replace it with another version of the same. Mr. Kenyatta stands to become a symbol of this for the entire African continent, particularly if he ends up standing up to the ICC.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.