Kenya: President Uhuru Kenyatta is becoming an influential leader on the African continent. He is also one of the most difficult politician to comprehend.
Blowing hot and cold at the same time, and giving a signal towards one end when he means to proceed in the opposite direction have become a hallmark of skilful operations by the political science-trained President.
After last year’s hard-hitting speech in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October during the African Union Heads of Government special sitting, for instance, few would have expected Uhuru to succumb to what he has repeatedly referred to as “colonial courts”.
Even most intriguing is that he would have manouevred technically to disengage from the stand of fire-spitting fellow African leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who pushed for the AU’s resolution barring sitting African President from appearing before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Uhuru’s own statement was equally fiery: “It (ICC) stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers... The West sees no irony in preaching justice to a people they have disenfranchised, exploited, taxed and brutalised. Our history serves us well: we must distrust the blandishments of those who have drank out of the poisoned fountain of imperialism,” Uhuru said in Addis Ababa.
But last Wednesday, President Kenyatta honoured summons to attend the status conference of his case. And he probably disarmed many, including the ICC operatives, who – judging from his earlier pronouncements and hard position – may not have expected his compliance with the international court.
Africa’s old guard
Equally, the President succeeded to diplomatically appease the fire-spitting Mugabes, Musevenis and Al Bashirs — who represent the old guard class of despotic African leaders — by shielding himself as a private citizen, to attend the ICC hearings.
With Thursday’s single act, Kenya may well have succeeded to shake off what Prof Phillip Nying’uro, an international relations expert, describes as “bad company.” Uhuru can no longer be associated with Mugabe, Museveni, Sudan’s Bashir and Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
Indeed Uhuru is already getting accolades for restating a new position — that of respecting the rule of law. This, to many, is a departure from the past and defines the stand of a new crop of young African leaders, which Uhuru is likened to.
There is also America’s 44th President, Barack Obama, whom President Uhuru’s government elaborately castigated for giving Kenya a wide berth during his extensive trip of Africa, last year in June. Kenyan officials were particularly irked by the gesture of the US President, with Kenyan roots, to tour neighbouring Tanzania and not step on the soil of his fatherland.
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Then the Obama administration maintained that the Uhuru-Ruto pair “had issues” which they must first clear with the ICC before America could interact with the two. Uhuru responded, not with an apology or kid gloves, but with hard-hitting statements and open revolt against the West.
Alongside Mugabe, Museveni and Kagame, among other leaders, he, for instance, snubbed the 23rd Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka and instead attended the third Arab-African Heads Summit in Kuwait. This was indeed the first time in Kenya’s history to skip the event.
President Uhuru’s diplomatic statement could not have been louder and bolder.
While some would have expected hostilities between Obama and Uhuru to intensify, the exact opposite appears to be happening. Obama, who had initially shunned Uhuru during his earlier trip to America, soon invited the Kenyan leader, among a few selected leaders, to the Africa-America Summit.
Uhuru has since been to the US twice where he received a warm reception from the US leader.
It would appear that Uhuru’s strategy is hinged on the policy of “playing the bad guy to earn recognition and respect”. If that is the card, then it has worked well with Obama among other world leaders. Even locally, the President’s own deputy, William Samoei Ruto, was his political nemesis ahead of the 2007 General Election.
Allies of the two leaders have often admitted that Uhuru could not comprehend why Ruto, with whom he served closely in the then ruling party, Kanu, changed allegiance to team up with former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
The post-election violence just made the situation more volatile for the two leaders, more so because of the bloody battles between members their two communities.
But again, Uhuru is a man who reportedly does not begrudge friend for long. It was not surprising, therefore, that the two easily teamed up in last year’s polls.
The same is true about his relationship with Raila, Uhuru’s toughest political challenger.
The two leaders teamed up briefly in 2001 in Kanu, only for Raila to bolt out and frustrate Uhuru’s presidential bid. Uhuru accordingly lost, yet he teamed up with Raila again in the Orange team to defeat the enactment of a watered-down constitution in the 2005 referendum.
Political pundits generally agree on the fact that Uhuru’s style is most intriguing. However, they are not in agreement as to whether the same is detrimental to his power play at the global stage. Nying’uro, who teaches at the University of Nairobi, advises against antagonising the West.
Noting that it led to the United Nation’s Security Council’s rejection of Kenya’s deferral bid of the ICC cases last year, Nying’uro advises against the folly of the President and AU overestimating their influence on the global scene.
Some, like Prof Peter Kagwanja, a political scientist and chief executive of the African Policy Institute, are not particularly awed by what is shaping out as the foreign policy of the Kenyatta presidency.
In an earlier interview with The Standard on Sunday, Kagwanja describes Uhuru as a charismatic and hands-on leader. Kagwanja says that the President is personally behind the current diplomatic charm offensive by Kenya.
The dare-devil approach, he avers, is destined to redefine Kenya as an influential global player in the regional and indeed Africa.