Online Only: The Kenyatta Dilemma

Britain's clumsy diplomacy has damaged relations with Kenya

After four days of counting and recounting votes, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election. This is not what the British government had been hoping for. The usual rule of not taking sides was put aside for this election, as Western governments made clear their support for Kenyatta’s rival, Raila Odinga. If Kenyatta was to win the election, they would limit relations with Kenya to “essential contact only”.

The reason for this stance is that Kenyatta is to stand trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. He is accused of having planned the violence which followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. Dealing with an ICC indictee could be difficult, so foreign diplomats made it clear that Kenya risked being marginalised if it voted for Kenyatta.

It is a common policy for EU member states to keep contact with any ICC indictee to a minimum; diplomats repeatedly stressed the point in the months running up to the election on March 4. Kenyatta’s rivals began telling of the disastrous economic impact this could have on Kenya. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also weighed in, telling Kenyans that voting for an ICC suspect would complicate foreign relations.

But this tactic appears to have backfired. Instead of scaring people into voting for Odinga, Kenyans have begun to question why they should listen to the West. This played into Kenyatta’s hands: he portrayed Odinga as a puppet of the West and the ICC case as an example of Western countries bullying Africans.

The UK has been a particular focus for Kenyatta’s attention. Any comments made by the British High Commissioner, Christian Turner, were seized upon as an example of modern colonialism. Kenyatta told how he would defend Kenya from such interference if he were elected president. Whilst votes were being counted, Christian Turner was once again drawn into the discussion, when Kenyatta’s Jubilee Coalition accused him of “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement” in the election.

The bad feeling Kenyatta has shown towards the UK may partly be due to personal history. Uhuru Kenyatta’s father and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was imprisoned during British rule. The current British government’s political and financial support of the ICC case involving Kenyatta does not help either, particularly now that the prosecution’s case is has weakened following the dropping of an unreliable key witness. But it is possible that much of it is down to simple opportunism. Kenyatta saw a way of using the ICC case to his advantage, turning Kenyans against foreigners who were “out to get Kenya”.

Clumsy diplomacy strengthened Kenyatta’s case against the UK. British diplomats failed to see how they were being used and allowed themselves to be drawn into a debate, which was helping Kenyatta win the election.

Now that Kenyatta has been elected, the UK has a problem. Carrying out the threat of marginalising Kenya and limiting contact with its government would work against British interests, but dealing with Kenyatta will be tricky, especially if the ICC case goes against him. Furthermore, even if the British government is prepared to continue to work closely with Kenya, it is no longer certain that Kenya wants to work with the UK.

This difficult situation could have been avoided, but instead our relationship with Kenya is now at risk, and it is a relationship that the UK cannot afford to lose. Kenya is a hub for business and political interests in sub-Saharan Africa and is a close ally in security and counter-terrorism operations.

The importance of these ties is likely to override any desire to avoid contact with Kenyatta. Already the UK has started to backtrack. In a statement released by the Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, the UK reaffirmed its commitment to the “deep and historic partnership with Kenya”, although the statement avoided any mention of Kenyatta. The pre-election threats of very limited contact seem to have been forgotten, as the UK now tries to find a way of working closely with Kenya, but without much public contact with its president. However, it will take more than talk of deep and historic partnerships to mend the damage the UK has done.

Convincing Kenyatta that he still has something to gain from working with the UK will be difficult. The failed attempt to warn people off voting for Kenyatta has changed the UK’s standing in Kenya, both with its leaders and its people. It is possible that bungled diplomacy may have ruined a crucial friendship in Africa.

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