A few months back, the UK High Commissioner stated that if Kenyatta and Ruto won the election, the UK would only maintain essential relations with their government. Now it seems that the High Commissioner’s government has just discovered that the entire relationship with the Government of Kenya is ‘essential’ to British interests, and must be fully maintained.
Joking aside, the threat of China displacing Britain as the Premier trading and development partner for Kenya seems to have UK MPs on edge. This came out in a debate on 20 March, in which both MPs and the Secretary for International Development were falling over themselves to make it clear that the UK was neither biased against a Kenyatta presidency nor seeking a change in diplomatic relations between the two states. The full Hansard (transcript) for that debate can be found here.
The dilemma for the UK is that its commercial interests, donor relations, anti-piracy policy, anti-terrorism policy and military training are all linked in some way to Kenya. In fact, the word used by one MP- pivotal- is more apt because Kenya is a hub and pivot for much of the Britain’s Africa/Middle East policy. As awkward as a Kenyatta presidency is for them, they would rather swallow that pill than allow the further spread of Chinese trade at the expense of British firms, or obstacles to the anti-piracy and anti-terorrism campaign due to a hostile government in Kenya.
One MP, Eric Joyce, suggested that the statement by Johnny Carson (the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) that ‘choices have consequences’ may have in fact helped Uhuru Kenyatta secure more votes. The same MP warned the House of Commons the UK is in danger of a ‘Zimbabwe Moment’ with Kenya i.e. a perception that White people are coming back to tell Black people how to run their countries. The Zimbabwe issue refers to the backlash from African states to UK policy towards Harare; Britain was seen as being in favour of the white settler farmers evicted by Mugabe’s government, ignoring the pain that economic sanctions caused other Zimbabweans.
When the Commons debate turned to the ICC, the MPs rehashed the same dull argument about only Africans being indicted. This time at least it was quickly refuted by contributors who took the floor. More worrying is that at least one MP took the issue of ‘compromised witnesses’ as an indication that the charges against Kenyatta hold no weight. The same MP went on to say that:
“[the UK relationship with Kenya] is not something that we can simply leave to technicalist and—I mean this in the nicest possible way—bureaucratic processes in The Hague that, even if they are legal, are disconnected from a wider political process.”
He’s right about the disconnect from the political process (both the ICC and the Prosecutor always stress this disconnect- though they see it as a good thing). But the Prosecutor has made it clear that Kenyatta will not be boarding the Muthaura bus to freedom- she will fight to get him to trial whereas she conceded the case against Muthaura. Kenyatta’s co-accused did not succeed on technicalities, but on a failure of evidence; the prosecutor believes that the quality of evidence in the Kenyatta case is sufficient where it was inadequate in Muthaura’s case. It would be interesting to see what the result for the UK would be if those ‘bureaucratic processes’ ended with UK (Uhuru Kenyatta) going on trial.
Wednesday’s Commons debate follows on the heels of Jendayi Frazer’s attack on Carson, her successor at the State Department. The two incidents demonstrate that the West (specifically the US and UK) is simply out of its depth with its policy towards the ICC and President-elect Kenyatta. The West would rather have someone else at State House, but it needs friendly relations with the Kenya government. On the other hand, the West would equally rather have someone else running Sudan, but the crucial difference is that it doesn’t really need to work with Al Bashir (who is under a warrant of arrest from the ICC) to achieve its geo-strategic aims. So it can afford to slap sanctions and travel bans on him and his advisors for refusing to cooperate with the court. It’s doubtful if the reaction will be so harsh if Kenyatta also decides that cooperation with the ICC is no longer obligatory. With China eager to pounce on any US/UK policy misstep (as it did in both Sudan and Zimbabwe), the ‘Kenyan pivot’ is simply too important in the short and medium term to abandon, even if ‘essential contacts’ continue.