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Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, offers US embarrassment and dilemma

The West must weigh security and business interests against the demands of international justice.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration as Kenya’s new president on Tuesday offers Western countries short-term embarrassment and a longer-term dilemma as they weigh security and business interests against the demands of international justice.

Tens of thousands of cheering supporters filled the Moi stadium in Nairobi where a host of African presidents turned up to welcome Kenyatta into the fold.

Kenyatta’s margin of victory in the March 4 polls was razor thin: just 8,000 votes over the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory. In late March the Supreme Court threw out petitions challenging Kenyatta’s win and described the election as “free, fair, transparent and credible” despite a series of technical hitches that dogged the tallying.

Crucially, the violence that killed over 1,100 and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes was not repeated this time around and many hope to draw a line under the tribal violence that followed the last polls in 2007.

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The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Kenyatta, 51, for crimes against humanity committed in the weeks and months following Kenya’s 2007 election. His trial is due to begin in July.

Kenyatta’s deputy William Ruto is similarly accused with his trial due to start in May. Both men set loose ethnic gangs to kill, maim, rape and burn their tribal and political opponents, according to the ICC charges.

Their presence on the podium at Moi stadium on Tuesday, and at the head of Kenya’s government after that, puts Western countries, including the United States, in a quandary as they have vocally supported the ICC but are wary of alienating an important ally in a sometimes tricky region.

“It places the West in a situation with no precedent and there’s going to be a lot of learning by doing on their part in how to deal with a Kenyatta government,” said John Githongo, a veteran anti-corruption campaigner and chief executive of civil society organization Inuka Kenya.

“Choices have consequences” the United States told Kenyans ahead of last month’s vote in comments that were seen as a poorly-veiled reference to Kenyatta’s name on the ballot sheet. Britain’s top diplomat in Kenya spoke for most European nations when he stated that Britain would have only “essential contact” with an ICC indictee.

But the warnings backfired as Kenyatta’s campaign team shrewdly lifted the shield of sovereignty and accused Western countries of neo-colonial meddling in Kenyan affairs winning them votes and support.

Chastened, the US ambassador Robert Godec paid a locally well-publicized visit to Kenyatta’s office last week and UK high commissioner Christian Turner is expected at the inauguration, despite his earlier “essential contact” comments.

On Monday a Kenyan government official was forced to deny reports that Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir would be attending Kenyatta’s inauguration. Bashir’s presence would have added to the awkwardness of Western envoys, as he too has been indicted by the ICC (for genocide and war crimes as well as crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur).

Unlike his Kenyan counterpart Bashir is a fugitive from international justice having refused to cooperate with the court. Bashir’s pariah status and limited travel options will be a lesson to Kenyatta who, while protesting his innocence and seeking to have the charges against him dropped, has said he will continue to cooperate with the ICC.

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Business and security links between Kenya and its Western allies are deep and strong, although challenged latterly by the increasing attention of China’s state and private investors.

Kenya’s is the biggest economy in a fast-growing region and the capital Nairobi is home to continental headquarters for Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Nokia. International companies including Diageo and Vodafone are listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange.

Recent oil finds are attracting exploration companies to Kenya from around the world, and its existing port at Mombasa plus a new one planned for Lamu, make it the gateway to the East African Community and its market of around 140 million people.

The United States works closely with Kenyan security in tracking down Al Qaeda cells and terrorist operatives; Kenya’s army is among those fighting Al Shabaab militants in neighboring Somalia where US drone strikes are part of the coordinated arsenal.

Closer to home Kenya’s courts have been more willing than most to try and prosecute the Somali pirates who, for years, have made one of the world’s busiest waterways one of the most dangerous.

The United States also has a billion dollar aid program in Kenya and the country is regarded as something of a success story in the global fight against AIDS and other diseases.

More from GlobalPost: Kenya election, deja vu?

While many in Kenya hope for a fresh start the recent past haunts the present.

Kenyatta still has to deal with his case at the ICC, but new beginnings will be hardest for those Kenyans directly affected by the violence, who lost relatives and family members, saw them killed in front of them or were forced to run for their lives as the homes and business they had built were burned down.

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For them there has yet to be either justice or any accountability and the recent election throws up some difficult questions. Not only did Kenya, once again, vote primarily in ethnic blocks but, as Githongo puts it, “We have to face up to the fact that people who are indicted by the ICC received a higher number of votes and that was a moral choice on the part of Kenyans.”

Half-hearted domestic attempts at truth commissions and local tribunals have all floundered rendering the ICC the only hope for victims. Now with some of those accused of being most responsible for the violence holding the most powerful positions in the country it looks less likely than ever that anyone will be brought to book.