ICC treads carefully ahead of ruling Monday on Kenyan violence suspects

The International Criminal Court will announce Monday who among six prominent Kenyans will face trial for crimes of humanity in post-election violence in 2008. Will Kenyans support decision?

On Monday, Kenyans will know whether six prominent Kenyans will face trial for their alleged role in organizing mass violence after the December 2007 elections. At least 1,200 people died and 600,000 people were displaced from their homes between December 2007 and February 2008, after elections that observers say were flawed and possibly rigged.

There have been momentary shocks of ethnic violence in Kenya’s previous elections, since the country returned to a multiparty parliamentary system in 1998. But the ferocity of the violence in early 2008 took even many Kenyans by surprise. It shut down ports, rail links, and highways, and crippled the economies of the entire region. Landlocked East African neighbors who depended on the Kenyan port of Mombasa found themselves without fuel.

On Monday, all eyes will be on six menFinance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, civil service chief Francis Muthaura, police commissioner Hussein Ali, parliamentarians William Ruto and Henry Kosgey, and radio talk-show host Joshua arap Sang – who are accused of crimes against humanity, including murder, forcible transfer, and persecution. Two of these men, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto, plan to run for the presidency in the March 2013 elections.

How these men behave after the announcement could determine how their supporters behave, and whether Kenya – and its growing economy -- can brave the rough political waters ahead.

The ICC appears to be aware of the possible reaction to its decision, and is attempting to mitigate the risks. The court will inform the accused of its decision first, before reading out the decision in court.

Not just about ethnicity

On the surface, ethnic enmity appears to be the cause of Kenya’s troubles. Powerful politicians, such as the nation’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta and later Daniel arap Moi, tended to use their positions of power to divide economic spoils among kinsmen, a fact that riled those belonging to other ethnic groups.

After the 2007 elections, ethnic Kalenjin gangs in the Rift Valley reacted with anger to the announced victory of President Mwai Kibaki and chased out Kikuyu families, because they were presumed to have voted for the incumbent President Kibaki, who is a Kikuyu. In Naivasha and in the slums of Nairobi, ethnic Kikuyu gangs chased out Kalenjin and Luo families, because they presumably supported the main opposition candidates Raila Odinga and William Ruto, who are Luo and Kalenjin, respectively.

But ethnicity is just a tool that Kenyan politicians use to build their support base, as the Monitor has reported in the past. Ethnic tensions don’t boil over on their own; they only do so in election years. And the case before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, will be looking into evidence that purports to show just who among the Kenyan political elite may have dirty hands, after giving orders and funding to ensure that ethnic tensions did boil over, precisely at a time when Kenya’s powerbrokers were approaching the negotiating table to figure out how power should be distributed.

In February 2008, after two months of discord, and a month of mediation by African elder statesmen and women, Kenya's two main parties agreed to form a coalition government.

There is substantial evidence that many Kenyans became so disenchanted by their political leaders after the post-election chaos that they now give strong support to the ICC process. While Kenyan politicians such as Deputy President Musyoka Kalonzo traveled around Africa to condemn the ICC as taking away Kenya’s sovereignty, polls show that a majority of Kenyans support the ICC prosecution.  

One poll, conducted by South Consulting two weeks ago, found that 64 percent of Kenyans support the ICC process, while another poll, conducted by Ipsos Synovate, found that support to be lower at 54 percent.

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