Uhuru Kenyatta, Britain’s nightmare

After four days of counting and recounting votes, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election. This is not what the British government had been hoping for.

The failed attempt by the UK to warn people off voting for Kenyatta has changed the former colonial power’s standing in Kenya, both with its leaders and its people. Bungled diplomacy and most of all hubris, have ruined a crucial friendship in Africa.

Western governments made clear their support for Kenyatta’s rival, Raila Odinga. If Kenyatta was to win the election, they would limit relations with Kenya to “essential contact only”.

Clearly, the British had relied on their usual haughty manner to impress the natives once more.

The ostensible reason is that Kenyatta is to stand trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. Robert Mugabe however, enjoys the benefits of Western aid after having confiscating white farmland and ethnically cleansed his country.

Kenyatta is accused of having planned the violence which followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. Dealing with an ICC indictee could be difficult, so foreign diplomats made it clear that Kenya risked being marginalised if it voted for Kenyatta.

So keeping contact with an ICC indictee to a minimum; was the piont that diplomats repeatedly stressed in the months running up to the election on March 4. Kenyatta’s rivals began telling of the disastrous economic impact this could have on Kenya. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also weighed in, telling Kenyans that voting for an ICC suspect would complicate foreign relations.

But this tactic has backfired. Instead of scaring people into voting for Odinga, Kenyans have begun to question why they should listen to the West. This played into Kenyatta’s hands: he portrayed Odinga as a puppet of the West and the ICC case as an example of Western countries bullying Africans.

The UK has been a particular focus for Kenyatta’s attention. Any comments made by the British High Commissioner, Christian Turner, were seized upon as an example of modern colonialism. Kenyatta told how he would defend Kenya from such interference if he were elected president. Whilst votes were being counted, Christian Turner was once again drawn into the discussion, when Kenyatta’s Jubilee Coalition accused him of “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement” in the election.

The bad feeling Kenyatta has shown towards the UK may partly be due to personal history. Uhuru Kenyatta’s father and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was imprisoned during British rule. The current British government’s political and financial support of the ICC case involving Kenyatta does not help either, particularly now that the prosecution’s case is has weakened following the dropping of an unreliable key witness. But it is possible that much of it is down to simple opportunism. Kenyatta saw a way of using the ICC case to his advantage, turning Kenyans against foreigners who were “out to get Kenya”.

British diplomats failed be drawn into a debate, which was helping Kenyatta win the election.

Now that Kenyatta has been elected, the UK has a problem. Kenya is a hub for business and political interests in sub-Saharan Africa and is a close ally in security and counter-terrorism operations.

The importance of these ties is likely to override any desire to avoid contact with Kenyatta. Already the UK has started to backtrack. In a statement released by the Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, the UK reaffirmed its commitment to the “deep and historic partnership with Kenya”, although the statement avoided any mention of Kenyatta. The pre-election threats of very limited contact seem to have been forgotten, as the UK now tries to find a way of working closely with Kenya, but without much public contact with its president. However, it will take more than talk of deep and historic partnerships to mend the damage the UK has done.

Convincing Kenyatta that he still has something to gain from working with the UK will be difficult. – Source: Standpoint