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Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in yesterday as the president of Kenya. At most, I am ambivalent. To be clear, this is not due to any support for his main challenger, Raila Odinga (my candidate of choice, James Ole Kiyiapi, had almost no chance of winning, but fought an admirable and inspiring campaign). I can’t help but be ambivalent when Kenyatta is facing serious charges at the international criminal court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after the previous elections in 2007. The ICC is an institution that, for better or worse, I believe in and would like to see working well. I’m grateful that his speechwriter didn’t run away from the question, but can’t help worrying that this is empty rhetoric and window-dressing.
Regardless of what happens, at the end of this year, one institution will be severely crippled by Kenyatta’s election. Either the Kenyan presidency will be reduced to the same pariah status as Sudan in the north, or the ICC will be forced to backtrack on its pursuit of Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto as the presumed protagonists in the post-election violence. Neither prospect is ideal, but the coming tension is almost inevitable.
Human rights actors like to believe that the norms they defend are universal, but the reality is that states and individuals ignore these perceived norms with incredible impunity. We live in an era in which we said “never again” to apartheid but mumble quietly and awkwardly as Israel institutes a “Palestinians-only” bus service. Ours is the age in which the shadow of genocide colours every conflict but the right to asylum is plagued with raced, gendered and ageist qualifications. Is it a surprise, therefore, that states acceded to the idea of a criminal court, but are now awkwardly backing away at the prospect of it fulfilling its functions?
The international human rights and humanitarian community has struggled for centuries to find a way of preventing the outbreak of violence and responding to it, and the birth of the ICC was intended to signal that a baseline consensus between these aspirations and the demands of a state-based system had finally been achieved.
What we learn from the situation in Kenya is not so much that this is untrue. Rather it is that for many individuals, there are other priorities that rank higher. Nascent democracies may privilege self-determination and internal loyalties over international interference and loyalty to external actors. We learn from Kenya that where the country has good reason to mistrust international organisations, the appearance of selling out will be punished. Voters will also make utilitarian calculations as to which of their choices will quickly communicate to the outside world that everything at home is OK.
Voters are savvier than many international human rights actors give them credit for. There are very few people questioning Kenyatta or Ruto’s possible culpability in the post-election violence. But the notion that the Hague Six are the only people with blood on their hands has made a lot of Kenyans uncomfortable. The belief is that Ruto and Kenyatta are being used as scapegoats for an outbreak of violence that necessarily implicated more people in power than the six who were indicted.
Furthermore, Kenyatta would hardly be the first democratically elected president in the world’s history to have a seriously questionable human rights record. The US in particular has a long history of returning presidents to power whose actions at home and abroad deeply damaged communities and institutions. George W Bush was re-elected even as grisly details of the extraordinary rendition programme emerged. Barack Obama was re-elected in the US even as the human rights community challenged him on the use of arbitrary detention in the case of Bradley Manning, and on the use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
So, just as US voters ignored Obama or Bush’s many humanitarian failures, Kenyan voters have ignored Kenyatta’s confirmed charges at the ICC and handed him the presidency. Analysts will rightly argue that the presence of so many formidable smaller candidates robbed Raila of the statistical advantage of key strongholds. Pessimists will focus on the fact that for the most part, voting tracked the ethnic strongholds of each coalition’s candidates. Optimists will point out that, especially in urban areas, there seems to be a move away from this, and the vote was actually more fragmented than aggregate statistics will reveal. Realists will emphasise that Kenyan democracy has shown significant maturity in these last five days and morally blind, communitarian voting is more similar to established democracies than we’d like.
“Democracy” – the rule of the people – is necessarily imperfect. In a perfect voting market, where all voters know everything about every candidate, they will choose the candidate that will do the most to protect the people’s long-term interests. But we forget that the homo economicus making his way through the capitalist world is rationally self-interested, and will necessarily privilege short-term self-preservation over an uncertain long-term reward.
This is the democracy that we have been willing on African states – the freedom and power to make decisions based on nothing more than utilitarian calculations of self-protection and self-preservation. What we see in Kenya is a situation where democracy is realising its natural ends, and those ends are at discomfiting odds with the normative ideals of a rights-based world.
Kenyatta is my president. It makes me uncomfortable, but at least it means democracy in Kenya is working the best way it can.
Source: The Guardian