Why Obama, EU have interest in outcome of Kenyan election


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The US government was forced to “clarify” President Barack Obama’s Tuesday remarks over Kenyan elections on learning that Jubilee coalition leaders had interpreted it as an endorsement of their candidature.

Inquiries by the Sunday Nation found out that the State Department was concerned that Jubilee presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running William Ruto had packaged the Obama message as an endorsement of their candidature.

This was reflected in subsequent comments by Jubilee leaders and enthusiastic pro-Uhuru bloggers and commentators on social media.

It also emerged that Washington and the European Union have renewed their interest in the Kenyan election as the clock ticks to March 4.

The latest opinion polls show a tight race between Mr Kenyatta and Cord presidential candidate Raila Odinga. Political analysts think that the closeness of the contest may have triggered the renewed interest from the US, British, French and Swiss governments which last week stated their stand should Mr Kenyatta, who is facing crimes against humanity charges in The Hague, be elected Kenya’s fourth president.

The possibility that Western powers may be forced to engage with a government headed by suspects of crimes against humanity appears to have informed the statements warning of unspecified consequences against Kenya.

Western powers have in the past found themselves in an awkward position in the Middle East and Tunisia where popular vote has given power to leaders they would not wish to engage with.

One stark example is Hamas, a militant Palestinian party that since 2007 has ruled a ministate in the Gaza Strip after its gunmen routed members of longer-established party, Fatah.

An offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has long been regarded as a terrorist group by the US, Israel and Europe. But in 2006, it won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections held by the Palestinian Authority, defeating Fatah candidates who were widely seen as corrupt.

It never took control, however, as talks with President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah, over how to divide power broke down.

In Kenya, the Western powers face a dilemma of what they would do if the presidency goes to Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto, which would be against their rules of engagement with suspects of crimes against humanity.

At a rally in Eldoret, Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta on Saturday told off the Western envoys.

Kenya is an ally of the US in the war on terrorism and the Kenya Defence Forces have played a key role in pushing back the rise of Al-Shabaab, a group that associates itself with Al-Qaeda.

European countries are a key market for Kenyan agricultural products and major companies have invested heavily in banking, construction, tourism, agriculture, security, telecommunications and other industries.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have been committed to trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

In his country-specific message, President Obama declared that “the choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people”.

A few hours later, Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta called a press conference and said they were impressed that the US government had undertaken to accept the results of the elections.

“We have never received any ban from any country, there are a lot of issues that have been pushed out there by individuals and by commentators,” Mr Kenyatta said.

Two days later, Mr Obama’s top diplomat for Africa Johnnie Carson clarified that though it was the responsibility of Kenyans to elect their leaders the “choices matter and they have consequences”.

“Individuals have reputations, individuals have images, individuals have histories. Individuals are known for who they are and what they do, what they have said, and how they act,” he said.

Though he did not mention any names, Mr Carson, who spoke repeatedly of “consequences”, appeared to caution voters against electing a president facing charges at the ICC.

A State Department source who requested anonymity said the response by the Kenyan leaders had thrust them into an “unexpected and awkward situation”.

“The message put out there was a misinterpretation of President Obama’s, whose emphasis was that the Kenyans reserved their right to choose their president,” said the official.

“It was inaccurate to make the suggestion that US was ready to work with any chosen leaders after the election. There is established philosophy on US engagement,” he said.

The United Kingdom, France and Switzerland also warned over the candidature of the ICC accused, triggering emotive debate and an angry reaction from the Uhuru-Ruto campaign which sees it as plot to impose a preferred candidate.

Without elaborating, the foreign countries spoke of “consequences” of the election of Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto.

Mr Onyango Oloo, The National Alliance secretary-general, said the Carson statement was influenced by Kenya’s ambassador in the US, Mr Elkanah Odembo, with whom he had met on Tuesday.

Close relation

“It is not lost to us that in the moment prior to its release Mr Carson met with Kenya’s ambassador to the US, Elkanah Odembo, at 3pm in his office at the State Department in the most unconventional way; alone and in the absence of government political officer or representative from the State Department. Mr Odembo is a close relation of a key presidential candidate,” Mr Oloo said.

Mr Odembo is perceived to be an ally of Mr Odinga.

On Saturday, Mr Odembo said he met with Mr Carson in Washington a day before the US diplomat held a teleconference with reporters.

He said that though he briefed his host on the political situation in Kenya, the theme of their meeting “was on a totally different subject matter”.

“I booked my appointment with the State Department many weeks ago to seek the United States government’s support for the candidacy of a Kenyan shortlisted for the post of Director of the World Trade Organisation. That is precisely why I was there on Wednesday,” he said.

He added that there was nothing unusual in what Mr Carson told journalists.

“The fact that President Obama said the US would respect the will of the people does not in any way negate or shift his government’s position on individuals accused of committing atrocities against humanity,” the diplomat said.

Mr Odembo told the Sunday Nation it was a coincidence that he met Mr Carson a day before he briefed journalists on Washington’s position on the ICC accused.

Politely oblige

Mr Odembo said that it was not unusual for the State Department to request that the ambassadors be unaccompanied. “We receive such requests all the time and we politely oblige.”

He said the insinuation that he could influence the foreign policy of the United States was laughable.

“If I could influence the US Department of State that much, I would be, without doubt, the most powerful envoy in Washington,” he told the Sunday Nation from Las Vegas, where he was accompanying the visiting Kenyan rugby team.

The impending trials have become a political hot potato.

While the Jubilee team had vowed to make the election a referendum on the case at the ICC, their opponents hoped to use it as a campaign tool against the Uhuru-Ruto ticket.

The major concern is that a Uhuru-Ruto victory could not only lead to possible isolation of the country but also present mind-boggling logistical challenges for the duo.

The trial is expected to take years, meaning Mr Kenyatta and his deputy president would be in The Hague for long.

It is the policy of some countries such as Britain not to have any contact with ICC suspects. This means communication with partner nations could become difficult for Kenya.

British High Commissioner Christian Turner told Citizen TV that his country would maintain its policy on ICC accused even if Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto are elected.

“The policy of my government remains that we do not have contact with ICC indictees unless it is essential,” Dr Turner said. He pointed out that that was also the position of European Union members.

Speaking in Kisumu on Friday, France ambassador Etienne de Poncins also saod Kenyans have a right to elect leaders of their choice, adding, “Our position is that we only have essential contact with somebody who is indicted by the ICC; it is a well-known position, same as that of the British.”


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