NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta, the wealthy son of the country’s independence hero, brushed off international charges of crimes against humanity to present himself as a statesman with the economic skills to help ordinary citizens.
Backed by voters from Kenya’s biggest tribe, the Kikuyu, in a nation where ethnic loyalties trump ideology at the ballot box, the 51-year-old listed as Kenya’s richest man had his win confirmed by the Supreme Court on Saturday after a legal challenge.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga raised a case saying the vote was riddled with illegalities. But the court threw out the challenge, saying Kenyatta’s election was valid.
Kenyatta - who is hailed as “jaba”, or warrior, by his supporters - fought a slick and well-funded campaign to edge above the 50 percent-mark needed to win outright by a little more than 8,000 votes out of more than 12.3 million cast.
He is now expected to be sworn in on April 9.
But battling for the post his father held after Kenya’s independence from the British in 1963 may have been the easy part. The U.S.-educated Kenyatta’s biggest challenges may emerge once he moves into State House, the president’s residence that is a short walk from his Nairobi home.
Even before the vote, Kenya’s Western donors indicated a Kenyatta presidency would complicate diplomatic ties because he and his running mate, William Ruto, are both charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over their alleged role in the tribal blood-letting after the last election in 2007.
Closer to home, Kenyatta will have to hold together a coalition with Ruto who hails from the Kalenjin tribe, long at odds with Kenyatta’s Kikuyu over one of Kenya’s most contentious issues - land ownership.
It is a sensitive issue for Kenyatta himself. Challenged in a presidential debate on how much land he and his family controlled, Kenyatta avoided a direct answer but did mention 30,000 acres on the coast. That was enough to trigger fevered critical debate on Twitter. Critics say he owns far more.
He has also already had to shake off jibes from his rival Odinga that he would have to govern by Skype from the ICC’s headquarters in The Hague if elected.
Kenyatta, who denies the charges, said he would clear his name but would not let proceedings disrupt government work.
“We recognize and accept our international obligations and we will continue to co-operate with all nations and international institutions,” he said after his victory was declared on March 9, comments that reassured Western capitals.
But in an apparent swipe at the West, a hallmark of his campaigning, he also said the world should respect the democratic will of the Kenyan people, receiving applause in the auditorium where he gave his address.
The case may have played to Kenyatta’s advantage when the U.S. government said Kenyans should be wise in choosing their leader, and others like Britain, Kenya’s former ruler, outlined the policy of having only “essential contacts” with indictees.
Supporters present the remarks as “imperialist” meddling, burnishing Kenyatta’s nationalist credentials.
Kenyatta, bearer of Kenya’s most famous name and ranked by Forbes magazine as its wealthiest man, promised to tackle “real issues” affecting ordinary Kenyans such as housing shortages and unemployment.
Heir to his late father’s vast business empire, spanning land estates, the country’s biggest dairy company and five-star hotels, as well as interests in banking, insurance and exclusive schools, he can count on the support of many of Kenya’s business elite, dominated by Indians and Kikuyus.
Nevertheless, his supporters say their candidate remains a “man of the people” with an easy-going, popular touch.
The graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts has pointed to his experience as finance minister to show off his economic stewardship and readiness to rein in excess.
In office, he suggested ministers and high-ranking officials downgrade their vehicles, which played well in a nation with a huge gap between rich and poor. However, some critics said the alternative vehicle he proposed was not put out to open tender.
“My record at the Ministry of Finance is there. When it comes to the issue of transparency and openness in government which is one of the key pillars in our manifesto, my record speaks for itself,” said Kenyatta, striking the defiantly defensive tone that has been a keynote of his campaign.
He mooted the idea that parliamentarians - some of the best paid in the world - should pay tax. But he has also been criticized for not doing enough to improve basic services in his own rural parliamentary constituency.
Tensions in his government could emerge in office. His election alliance has been dubbed a “marriage of convenience” that was formed to let Kenyatta and Ruto show a united front to the ICC, but it may not have deep support beyond the vote.
Kenyatta’s Kikuyu and Ruto’s Kalenjin have long been tribal rivals and in the 2007 vote the two men backed different candidates. The ICC has accused the two of sending their tribal loyalists out to attack each others’ supporters after that poll.
“The political architecture at the top is rather convenient and limited to those cobbling together that alliance,” said Murunga. “But it is not translating on the ground and, for me, that would be a huge flashpoint to think about.”
Although he has promised to cooperate with the ICC, Murunga questioned whether Kenyatta’s resolve will hold in office.
“The presidency is a useful incentive not to follow the ICC process,” he said. “It is a very, very tempting incentive.”
Editing by Edmund Blair and Andrew Heavens