NAIROBI (Reuters) - Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as Kenyan president on Tuesday, presenting Western states with the challenge of how to deal with a leader indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Cheered by tens of thousands of people at the ceremony, Uganda’s president praised Kenyans for rejecting what he called the court’s bid to sway the vote by “blackmail”, a reflection of the distrust or resentment of the court felt by many Africans.
Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, a hero of independence, is charged with crimes against humanity for orchestrating an orgy of intercommunal violence after the last presidential election five years ago. He denies this and has repeatedly promised to work with the court to clear his name.
When the United States and European powers outlined their policy during the election campaign of only having “essential contacts” with court indictees, many Kenyans and some of Kenyatta’s aides accused them of trying interfere in the result.
Now the West must balance that policy with its wish for close ties with Kenya, seen as a vital ally in the regional battle against militant Islam. Any slip-up risks opening more space to China and other Asian powers that are gaining both political and trading influence in Africa.
“I assure you again that under my leadership, Kenya will strive to uphold our international obligations, so long as these are founded on the well-established principles of mutual respect and reciprocity,” Kenyatta said in a speech, delivered after taking his oath on the same bible his father used.
Those remarks will likely reassure the West who have urged him to cooperate with the court. Western diplomats said they would take a “pragmatic” approach to contacts but much would depend on the level of cooperation with the court.
The peaceful transition of power has already helped rebuild Kenya’s reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, after the violence five years ago, when 1,200 were killed. Analysts say the ICC row may have drawn more votes for Kenyatta.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the ceremony in a Nairobi stadium, “I want to salute the Kenyan voters on ... the rejection of the blackmail by the International Criminal Court.”
Museveni, who often accuses the West of using aid to interfere in African politics, said “the usual opinionated and arrogant actors” had tried to use the court to “install leaders of their choice in Africa”.
Washington and European capitals sent ambassadors to Kenyatta’s inauguration, a level of representation diplomats said was not unusual and in line with their contacts policy.
Sitting alongside the Western envoys were about a dozen African heads of state, as well as prime ministers and other top officials. China and India, neither a signatory to the statutes that set up the ICC, sent senior government officials.
“(Western powers) find themselves in a very difficult position,” said Kenya expert Daniel Branch at Britain’s Warwick University. “My sense is everyone will find some method of accommodation.”
Many Kenyans hope Kenyatta will now deliver on a promise to be a president for all and not just work for his own ethnic group, a practice they have come to expect from politicians.
“I will lead all Kenyans, those who vote for me and those who voted for our competitors,” Kenyatta said, outlining policies that ranged from job creation to improvements to infrastructure to providing laptops for school children.
Kenyatta, a 51-year-old former finance minister whose family controls a sprawling business empire, campaigned heavily on his ability to deliver faster economic growth and help swathes of poor in the nation of more than 40 million people.
“This is a new beginning,” said Elija Toroitich, a 56-year-old farmer at the stadium who voted for Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, also facing ICC charges. “We expect a lot from them due to the pledges they made in their manifesto.”
Kenyatta and Ruto, who also denies the charges, backed rival candidates in the 2007 vote. Analysts say Kenyatta, from Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and Ruto, a Kalenjin, may have formed an alliance this time because of the charges they both face.
Many Kenyans were riled by U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who had said before the vote and while he was still Washington’s top diplomat to Africa that “choices have consequences”, taken by Kenyans as a clear hint about America’s preferred outcome.
Addressing Kenyans and foreign attendees on Tuesday, Ruto responded by saying that although “many of you did not believe that we would win this election because it was said choices have consequences” Kenyans had delivered a first-round victory.
In an early sign of Western efforts to keep a close partnership, U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec met Kenyatta last week, and EU envoys put in a request for a session with him.
“We will continue to engage with the government of Kenya,” said one European diplomat, saying that the ICC charges were against individuals, not the nation.
An EU official said the meeting requested with Kenyatta aimed to “clear the air” over speculation that the West would impose sanctions on Kenya if Kenyatta won. “No one is talking of sanctions,” the official told Reuters.
Although some Kenyatta aides talk of a swivel towards Asia if the West spurns Kenya, the U.S.-educated Kenyatta may be just as concerned about any deterioration in ties with the EU, a big donor and significant importer of Kenyan produce, and Washington, which provides about $900 million in aid a year.
An Asian diplomat said Kenya could not easily switch away from Western markets, even if ties with Asia were growing.
Additional reporting by George Obulutsa and Richard Lough; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Louise Ireland