NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta took his oath of office on Tuesday, presenting Western states with a challenge of how to deal with a leader indicted by the International Criminal Court.
After a calm election that followed a bloodbath five years ago, many Kenyans hope Kenyatta will deliver on his 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.
For Western states, big donors to east Africa’s largest economy, Kenya is a vital player in the regional battle against militant Islam. But they now have to juggle their wish for close ties with a policy of limiting contacts with those indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The United States and European powers sent ambassadors to Kenyatta’s inauguration - a level of representation diplomats said was not unusual for such an event but still in line with having only “essential contacts” with indictees.
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 in 1963 from British rule.
The peaceful transition of power has helped rebuild Kenya’s reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Alongside outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, the ceremony was also attended by Daniel arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years until 2002.
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 signatories to the statutes that set up the ICC, sent senior government officials.
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.
“They 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.”
But Western ambassadors were saved one awkward moment. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with genocide in The Hague and faces an arrest warrant for not cooperating, did not attend, although an official said he was invited.
Tens of thousands of Kenyans, many waving flags, roared in support as Kenyatta took the oath.
“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 clear their names, denying charges of crimes against humanity and allegations they helped organise tribal-fuelled violence after the disputed 2007 election in which 1,200 were killed.
In the 2007 election, 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 for the first time since his election 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; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Richard Lough and Pravin Char