By Ben Nadler | Cross-posted from Africa at LSE
Ordinary Kenyans are deeply divided in their opinions over the trial of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ruto’s trial began last week in The Hague, while Kenyatta’s is scheduled to begin on 12 November. Both men are charged with crimes against humanity for their alleged involvement in the post-election violence that plunged the country into chaos in late 2007 and early 2008. Over 1,000 people were killed by the fighting, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Both Ruto and Kenyatta have denied the charges against them and agreed to voluntarily cooperate with the ICC proceedings.
This is the first time that a sitting president is set to be tried before the ICC, a fact not lost on ordinary Kenyans. Many in the capital city of Nairobi are divided over both the validity and the goals of the ICC hearings.
Some believe that the ICC is the only hope for these powerful men to be held accountable for their actions. A young man from Nairobi praised the efforts of the court and described a justice system in Kenya in which influential people are rarely tried for their crimes.
“In Kenya, the rich and powerful never go to trial. They call their friends or buy their way out,” he said. “The ICC is the only hope for justice for the regular people who were killed.”
A slew of op-ed pieces in national newspapers have echoed that sentiment. “Kenya will face trial for not having the will to domestically prosecute international crimes and also for not having a credible judicial system between 2008-2010,” wrote Dann Mwangi in The Standard, Kenya’s oldest daily newspaper.
Yet others here in Kenya have a very different opinion of the trials, calling them a violation of the country’s sovereignty and saying they will only serve to reopen old wounds. Some also wonder about the ultimate goal of the trials, fearing that any guilty verdict could once again drive the country to the brink of violence.
Despite the charges against them, Kenyatta and Ruto were democratically elected on 4 March of this year in an election that was called a “referendum” against the ICC charges.
Other African nations have likewise expressed concern over the precedent being set by putting a current head of state on trial. Boniface Njiru, the first Kenyan lawyer to be placed on the List of Counsel of the International Criminal Court wrote in a law review article, “a trial of a sitting head of state of a democratic state by the ICC constitutes…an overstretching and overloading of its jurisdiction which has caused the Court to be drawn into incessant controversies with member states.”
Opponents of the ICC have also claimed that the court is racially biased and has unfairly targeted African nations. All eight of the cases currently pending in the court are against individuals from Africa. Although several of those cases were referred to the court by the nations themselves, it has not stopped a widespread perception that the court is targeting Africa and largely leaving the rest of the world to its own devices.
The divide among Kenyans is perhaps best personified by the recent parliamentary disputes over whether Kenya should withdraw from the Rome Statute, which established the ICC.
During the contentious debates that took place on 5 September in the National Assembly and 10 September in the Senate, a coalition of officials decried the ICC trials and pressed for a withdrawal from the Rome Statute in order to “protect the sovereignty” of Kenya. They pointed to the United States, which declined to sign on to the statute to protect its citizens from the possibility of being tried by a foreign body.
But a large group of opposition officials said that the plan to withdraw was poorly timed and that Kenya must adhere to the rule of law, before walking out in protest without casting a vote. Both sessions of parliament had to be stopped multiple times to restore order because of raucous disagreement.
Ultimately the vote to withdraw was passed; taking Kenya one step closer to being the first country to withdraw from the Rome Statute and its ICC. Any withdrawal, however, would not affect the current cases against Kenyatta and Ruto, which continue to divide the nation.
Ben Nadler is pursuing a Masters degree at the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is currently conducting research in Nairobi, Kenya.
See more posts from Africa at LSE here.