NAIROBI (Reuters) - Uhuru Kenyatta took the oath of office as Kenyan president on Tuesday, presenting Western states with the challenge of how to deal with a leader indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Uganda’s president praised Kenyans at the ceremony for rejecting what he called the court’s bid to sway the vote by “blackmail”, a reflection of the distrust or resentment of the court felt by many Africans.
Kenyatta is charged with crimes against humanity for orchestrating an orgy of intercommunal violence that followed the previous presidential election five years ago, an accusation he denies.
When the United States and European powers outlined their policy during the campaign of only having “essential contacts” with court indictees, many Kenyans and some of Kenyatta’s aides accused them of trying intervene in Kenyan politics.
Now those powers have to juggle that policy with their wish for close ties with Kenya, seen as a vital ally in the regional battle against militant Islam.
If the West slips up in its diplomatic balancing act, it risks opening more space to China and other Asian powers that are gaining both political and trading influence in Africa.
Kenyatta pledged to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Republic of Kenya” in his oath, taken on a bible used by his father, Jomo Kenyatta, who was Kenya’s first president after independence from Britain in 1963.
The peaceful transition of power has helped to rebuild Kenya’s reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, after the violence five years ago, when 1,200 died. Analysts say the ICC row may have spurred some people to vote for Kenyatta.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the ceremony in a Nairobi stadium: “I want to salute the Kenyan voters on ... the rejection of the blackmail by the International Criminal Court”, to cheers from tens of thousands.
Museveni, who often accuses the West of using aid to interfere in African politics, said “the usual opinionated and arrogant actors” had tried to use the court to “install leaders of their choice in Africa”.
Washington and European capitals sent ambassadors to Kenyatta’s inauguration - a level of representation diplomats said was not unusual and in line with their contacts policy.
Sitting alongside the Western envoys were about a dozen African heads of state, as well as prime ministers and other top officials. China and India, neither a signatory to the statutes that set up the ICC, sent senior government officials.
“(Western powers) find themselves in a very difficult position,” said Kenya expert Daniel Branch at Britain’s Warwick University. “My sense is everyone will find some method of accommodation.”
Many Kenyans hope Kenyatta will deliver on a promise to be a president for all and not just work for his own ethnic group, a practice they have come to expect from politicians.
“This is a new beginning,” said Elija Toroitich, a 56-year-old farmer at the stadium who voted for Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, also facing ICC charges. “We expect a lot from them due to the pledges they made in their manifesto.”
He and others want Kenyatta, a 51-year-old former finance minister whose family controls a sprawling business empire, to deliver faster economic growth and help swathes of poor in the nation of more than 40 million people.
“My government will work with and serve all Kenyans without any discrimination whatsoever,” Kenyatta had said in an address after winning the March 4 vote. His victory was upheld by the Supreme Court following a challenge by his rival Raila Odinga.
Kenyatta and Ruto have promised to cooperate in The Hague to disprove allegations that they helped organise the tribal-fuelled violence after the disputed 2007 election. At that time, Kenyatta, from Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and Ruto, a Kalenjin, had backed rival candidates.
Western diplomats have indicated they will take a “pragmatic” line in dealing with Kenyatta’s government, but said much would depend on his cooperation with the court.
In an early sign of Western determination to keep a close partnership with Kenya, U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec met Kenyatta last week, and EU ambassadors put in a request for a session with him.
“We will continue to engage with the government of Kenya,” said one European diplomat, saying that the ICC charges were against individuals, not the nation.
An EU official said the meeting requested with Kenyatta aimed to “clear the air” over speculation that the West would impose sanctions on Kenya if Kenyatta won. “No one is talking of sanctions,” the official told Reuters.
Although some Kenyatta aides talk of a swivel east if the West spurns Kenya, the U.S.-educated Kenyatta may be just as concerned about any deterioration in ties with the EU, a big donor and significant importer of Kenyan produce, and Washington, which provides about $900 million in aid a year.
An Asian diplomat said Kenya could not easily switch away from Western markets, even if ties with Asia were growing.
Additional reporting by George Obulutsa and Richard Lough; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey