ELDORET, Kenya (Reuters) - The approaching trials of Kenya’s president and his deputy in The Hague are worrying the upland communities that were rent apart by a post-election bloodbath more than five years ago, violence the two men are accused of orchestrating.
When Deputy President William Ruto enters the dock at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday, to be followed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in November, members of their two ethnic groups fear the course of justice could open old wounds.
Their victory in this year’s peaceful election under the Jubilee Alliance has done little to heal rifts on the ground between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu and Ruto’s Kalenjin clans, which clashed after a disputed 2007 poll, when the two backed rival campaigns.
It leaves on tenterhooks east Africa’s biggest economy, where tribal loyalties have long driven politics or fuelled violence. It also worries the West, which sees a stable Kenya as vital to regional security and the fight against militant Islam.
For the ICC, the first trial involving a sitting president is its biggest test to date as the institution set up in 1993 faces mounting opposition in Africa, where it is seen as biased for having only charged Africans.
“The alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto bought us time,” said 34-year-old Regina Muthoni, who lives near the western city of Eldoret, close to where her mother and about 30 other Kikuyus were burned to death in a church torched by a Kalenjin gang.
“We don’t know whether their union will survive the trials,” she said, calming a wailing infant strapped to her back.
Adding to the uncertainty, a parliamentary vote last week demanding Kenya withdraw from The Hague court’s jurisdiction has raised some concerns Nairobi is building political cover for the two men to halt their participation in the trial, though diplomats see such a move by men who have attended pre-trial hearings as unlikely.
Kenyatta, 51, and Ruto, 46, have long insisted they would continue to cooperate to clear their names of charges of crimes against humanity. In addition, a Kenyan move to quit the court will take a year to implement and won’t halt existing trials.
“The two believe they can win at trial,” said Macharia Munene, a university lecturer in Nairobi. “The court also has a poor record of convictions,” he said, referring to its sole conviction to date of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.
The court case, as well as being seen as a catalyst to form the Jubilee Alliance coalition, may have helped Kenyatta and Ruto into office. Campaigners played on the idea of foreign meddling to whip up nationalist sentiment in the former British colony.
But the trials could yet drive a wedge between them and stir up their communities as case details emerge, testing an alliance at the top that has yet to filter down to places like Eldoret, one of several flashpoints after the 2007 vote.
“Their union is for purposes of convenience, to forge a common approach to fight the ICC trials,” said Ken Wafula, an Eldoret-based rights activist who works with both communities, which have long tussled over land and clashed in past elections.
“Both tribes living here know the alliance is not genuine.”
Wafula has campaigned for the trials to go ahead in The Hague, though since Kenyatta and Ruto’s election the government has called to have the trials dropped or brought closer to home and sought to drum up opposition among fellow Africans.
The ICC has refused to move the trials, but the African Union lent its support to shifting them to Kenya.
Kenyan public backing for the ICC has waned. An Ipsos-Synovate poll in July showed only 39 percent still wanted the trials to proceed. It had been 55 percent in April 2012.
Kenyatta’s supporters dismiss concerns that the trials will cause a rift in the alliance between two men, who seem at ease with each other despite vastly different backgrounds.
Kenyatta lived in State House, the presidential residence, when his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was Kenya’s first post-independence leader, while Ruto talks of his humble origins around Eldoret and long walks to school.
“There will be even more bonding when the trials start,” senior Jubilee member and Senate Speaker Ekwe Ethuro said, though he hinted at the challenge of governing while on trial.
“What might cause acrimony is the handling of this matter by the court, which should ensure it does not appear that it is trying to affect the running of Kenya’s government,” he added.
The decision by the Jubilee-dominated parliament to quit the ICC sends a further political message about Kenya’s unease with a court whose statutes it ratified in 2005, though opponents said the vote would turn Kenya into a pariah.
Africa already has an example of a president who has defied the court, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has denounced an arrest warrant over charges of genocide in Darfur, deepening Sudan’s isolation with the West.
But few see Kenya, a big recipient of U.S. and other aid and the trade gateway to east Africa, taking that route.
“A Bashir scenario is highly unlikely,” Lodewijk Briet, the European Union’s ambassador in Nairobi, told Reuters.
Yet the cases, as they unfold, could complicate the West’s relationship with the country. There is already frustration in Western capitals at what one diplomat in Nairobi called Kenyan authorities’ “wafer thin” cooperation with the court.
The ICC’s Gambian prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has said witnesses in its cases have been threatened into silence, forcing many to pull out, and relatives have been offered bribes or intimidated to reveal witnesses’ whereabouts. She dropped charges this year against Kenyatta’s co-accused, Francis Muthaura, for lack of evidence.
Ruto is being tried with radio executive Joshua arap Sang.
The European Union and the United States already have a policy of “essential only” contacts with Kenyatta due to the gravity of the charges. In practice, that has been interpreted fairly generously.
Ambassadors from those nations have met him. Kenyatta also met Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to Britain in March, though British officials insisted it was in the context of a conference on Somalia, where Kenya sent troops to restore order.
“The relations with the West could get even more awkward when the trials kick off because there could be all these embarrassing allegations,” said political analyst David Makali.
Despite the fears that communal tensions could once again boil over, there are still plenty of Kenyans who back the court proceedings.
“These trials should go ahead,” said Yusila Cherono, a 43-year-old Kalenjin, who was gang raped by suspected members of a Kikuyu militia in the post-vote violence near the town of Naivasha.
She still walks with a limp from her ordeal.
“We don’t want impunity,” she said.
Editing by Edmund Blair and Will Waterman