“Today is accountability day for Kenya,” declared International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, addressing the six Kenyans suspected of masterminding the post-election violence that killed more than 1,200 people at the start of 2008.
“Accountability day” has been a long time coming. “Finally we’ve begun the process of cleansing the nation,” says Mutahi Ngunyi, a Nairobi-based political scientist. “In the past we’ve always caught the small fish. But this time round we’re frying the big fish. It’s therapeutic for the people of Kenya.”
And the fish are big. Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s post-independence founding father Jomo Kenyatta and suspended higher education minister William Ruto are among the six who have this week faced preliminary hearings at The Hague.
The ICC’s decision to put senior Kenyan politicians on trial also sends a signal to other leaders, from Yemen to Ivory Coast, that political violence may not be ignored. Ocampo has already indicated he will investigate alleged human rights abuses committed by forces belonging to both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown of a nationwide revolt against his oppressive leadership will also come under Ocampo’s scrutiny.
Kenya signed up to the ICC at a time when there appeared to be little risk that any of its own politicians would have find themselves dragged to The Hague. Now, while a strong majority of Kenyans are determined to see their often self-serving political leaders held to account, the appetite for accountability and reform of a bent system among politicians is less evident.
In a brazen move, Kenya’s parliament voted in December to pull the East African nation out of the ICC. Then, adding salt to the wounds of those seeking justice, a faction in the cabinet led by President Mwai Kibaki launched a bid to block the cases from going ahead at The Hague.
Kibaki and his allies want the cases suspended for a year to allow for a local tribunal to be set up to hear the cases – a new constitution which overhauls the law courts makes this possible, they say. Kenyan lawmakers had a chance to form a local court two years ago and keep the ICC bay. They voted against it, perhaps believing the ICC would never come knocking.
In Kenya, however, the political squirming and back-pedalling needs to be seen in the context of next year’s presidential elections, local commentators say. Both Kenyatta and Ruto have thrown their hats into the ring and seem most likely to prevent prime minister Raila Odinga from ascending to the presidency. Odinga has pushed hard for the ICC process to stay on track – a move that makes him popular with voters and donors, even if it does threaten to break the rocky coalition government.
It also wouldn’t do his presidential ambitions any harm if his main rivals were clocking in and out of The Hague.