NAIROBI, Kenya — Swathed in coalition colors of red and yellow, supporters sounded their klaxons for Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kenyan politician indicted for crimes against humanity, as he launched his controversial bid for president.
The views of some of his supporters at the packed weekend rally reinforce fears that the March 4 presidential polls could destabilize and isolate east Africa’s biggest economy. Kenya is a key ally in international efforts to maintain security in the region.
“These elections are a referendum between the Kikuyu and the ICC,” cried 35-year-old unemployed Bernard Kinuthia, wearing a red top in support of Kenyatta.
He was referring to Kenya’s largest ethnic group, of which Kenyatta is a member, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where Kenyatta is wanted on charges related to his role in post-election ethnic violence six years ago.
In 2007, more than 1,100 people were killed in Kenya after the results of the presidential election were announced. Mwai Kibaki was sworn in as president, but peace brokers later negotiated a coalition government that installed his rival, Raila Odinga, as prime minister.
As Kibaki prepares to step down after two terms in office, Odinga will face Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president and one of the country’s richest men, in the March polls.
The immediate fear is that violence similar to that which exploded after the 2007 polls will reoccur. Down the line, should Kenyatta win and subsequently refuse to cooperate with the ICC, Kenya risks international condemnation and targeted sanctions, according to diplomats. These could hit the economy, which has been forecast to grow at 5 percent this year if the polls are peaceful, but at 3 percent, according to the World Bank, if violence erupts.
For the west, a violent election or one that returns two ICC-indicted candidates to power — Kenyatta’s running mate, William Ruto, has also been ordered to stand trial in The Hague — threatens its influence over a critical economic, diplomatic and military ally.
Organizations including Google and U.N. agencies have based their Africa headquarters in Nairobi. Kenya is a training ground for up to 10,000 British soldiers a year and a military base for the United States. It is a focus point for efforts to combat the Islamist jihadi threat along the east African coast.
“Any breakdown of the electoral process and political order in Kenya would . . . have major economic consequences in the region and jeopardize other U.S. objectives,” said Joel Barkan, a Kenya expert, in a report this month for the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think-tank.
“Two major U.S. foreign policy goals in the region — preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and nurturing peace between Sudan and South Sudan — could be compromised,” Barkan said.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the outgoing U.S. secretary of state, and Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who in 2008 helped negotiate an end to violence in Kenya, have voiced concern at the prospect of the country being led by ICC indictees. Kenyatta dismisses the ICC case as “a campaign tool” against him and Ruto.
Odinga regularly tops opinion polls. Kenyatta’s alliance, the TNA, is nevertheless confident it can win, thanks to support from his Kikuyu base. About 43 percent of 14.3 million registered voters are automatically aligned in favor of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance by dint of ethnicity, campaign manager Njee Muturi said.
“There’s no doubt [the electorate] will vote on a tribal line,” Muturi told the Financial Times above the cheering crowd that filled up the grassy banks of Uhuru Park in central Nairobi. Supporters chanted “My DNA is TNA,” reinforcing his point.
Muturi contends that the unlikely coalition — whose kingpins Kenyatta and Ruto, a Kalenjin, were formerly bitter rivals — is the best chance for delivering peace. He believes it can woo enough floating voters to secure victory.
“The hot spots of violence [in 2008] were between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, and this time we are together — the coalition was founded because of peace,” he said.
Andrew Kariuki, whose brother was killed in post-election violence for marrying a Kalenjin, agrees.
“I am born in between two tribes,” said 31-year-old Kariuki of his Kikuyu father and Kalenjin mother, wearing a yellow flag in his hair and a red top to symbolize support for both factions. “It’s terrible, too painful. We want these two tribes to unite. These two guys [Kenyatta and Ruto] will unite Kenya.”