Is Kenyatta Kenya’s Kurt Waldheim?

At first glance this seems a little harsh. Waldheim was involved in one of the darkest moments in human history, accused of ordering massacres of non-combatants in the Balkans during the Second World War and even the deportation of Greek Jews to death camps. After the war, he was twice the Secretary General of the UN and was subsequently Austrian President. The crimes that Kenyatta stands accused of- though atrocious in themselves- probably do not fall into the same bracket of gravity. But as James Verini at Foreign Policy perceptively points out, the similarities in how the two leaders parlayed their infamy into electoral victories are too many to ignore. Here are just some of the surprising points of comparison:

  1. When Kurt Waldheim ran for the Presidency, his opponents within Austria as well as Canada and UK pressed hard in opposing his candidacy as a suspected international criminal. Though he was not indicted in any court, they mistakenly trusted to Austria’s ‘national conscience’ and underestimated Waldheim’s political skills. Instead of alienating Waldheim from the ordinary voter, his dark past pushed them together: Waldheim’s woes were seen more as an attempt by his political opponents (the Socialists) to get rid of a strong candidate than as serious charges to be met in court.
  2. Waldheim’s campaign team openly used the accusations of international crimes as campaign material, even alleging that there was a ‘foreign conspiracy’ emanating from New York to prevent him winning the Presidency. As Verini puts it: “Someone, maybe from Waldheim’s campaign, maybe just a fed-up citizen, posted flyers announcing “We Austrians Will Vote For Whom We Want!””
  3. It reminds me of the graffiti sprayed on Nairobi walls shortly after Kenyatta was summonsed: it featured a stencilled portrait of Uhuru and the tagline ‘tuko pamoja’ (we are with you).

  4. Even some of those persecuted by the Nazis (Jewish Austrians, resistance fighters etc.) appear to have voted for Waldheim because they “were tired of the hypocrisy of the campaign against him.” They also voted for him because they were tired of the past being constantly dredged up and just wanted Austria to move on.
  5. This has echoes of the PR about reconciliation and forgiveness that accompanied the Uhuruto merger.

  6. Waldheim, like Kenyatta won the Presidency handily.
  7. Waldheim’s woes won him sympathy from states and regions aggrieved by an international system seen to be dominated by the Western nations. The Soviet Union and Arab League states both extended warm welcomes to him. Even US ally Israel, where one might have expected the former Nazi to be a pariah, invited him to the country shortly before his death.
  8. Museveni’s speech at Kenyatta’s inauguration as well as AU efforts on behalf of the Hague suspects also follow a similar pattern.

There are, I think some notable differences as well (apart from the different eras in which the alleged crimes were committed).

  1. Unlike Austria in the 70s and 80s, Kenya is not dealing with a situation in which a large part of an entire generation was in one way or another implicated in atrocities (either enthusiastically voting for Nazi war criminals, serving Nazi institutions, joining the SS or simply being sympathetic towards their Anti-Semitism).
  2. Waldheim was neither indicted nor summonsed to any international tribunal, though he had been investigated by a UN war crimes tribunal. An international team of historians who reviewed his war-time service found no evidence that he was involved in the Balkan crimes; however, the historians found Waldheim’s claim that he knew nothing of the crimes ‘implausible’. Kenyatta, on the other hand, had crimes against humanity charges confirmed by a panel of 3 international judges and is about to go on trial (unless he absconds) before another panel of international judges.
  3. Waldheim had been useful for the US in its foreign policy objectives, especially during his time in the UN. But by the time he became Austrian President, the policy field had shifted, making it easier for the US to disown their one time ally. Kenya, under Kenyatta, remains important- though not irreplaceable- in the USA’s African policy. The US is less likely to take the most severe sanctions against Kenyatta unless they are really pushed to the wall.

This in itself is enough to make one stop and think about drawing too many conclusions from the comparison with a dead Austrian Nazi. But on a humorous note, Kenyatta’s supporters should take heed of how the then US president Ronald Reagan reportedly addressed the thorny Waldheim Presidency:

  1. Reagan sent Waldheim a note of congratulations.
  2. Reagan then ordered that Waldheim be added to a list of those banned from entering the US.

Ultimately, Kenya will outlast an embarrassing Presidency, as Austria outlasted Waldheim. But it still shows that history, memory, truth, justice and reconciliation are thorny blossoms that must be picked with care or blood shall surely flow. These blossoms cannot, however, be ignored. It seems that during this election many Kenyans mis-liked being told by the West how to pick their own bloody flowers. At some point though, we as a country will have to grasp these issues; better it be us than our children holding thorns.


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Following the Hague trials of 4 Kenyans to the end. A blog by Archie Nyarango

UK Constitutional Law Association

affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law


Advancing the rule and role of law in Africa

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