AFRICANGLOBE – Love him or loathe him, there’s no questioning his influence: last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has done more than any other African to shape the destiny of both his country and his continent.Studying Uhuru Kenyatta, one gets the sense that he was never really in charge of his own destiny. As son of Kenya’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, he was born into political royalty and privilege; even his name, Uhuru (meaning ‘Freedom’ in Swahili) is a political statement. After the very finest education that Kenya could provide, and an enormously successful stint as a well-connected businessman that helped turn the Kenyatta family into Kenya’s richest, his entry into politics was inevitable, as were the high positions which his family name and connections guaranteed.
Not that it all came easily.
His first tilt at a parliamentary seat — not just any seat, but his father’s old position — ended in a humiliating defeat, but this only made Kenyatta more determined to live up to expectations; and, perhaps even more importantly, to carve out his own legacy, separate from his family past.
That he has now done so is beyond debate. For better or worse, 2014 marks the year when President Kenyatta rose above his own history to make his own mark on Kenya, with his influence extending far beyond his country’s borders.
Most prominent has been his ultimately victorious battle with the International Criminal Court, which has been waged far beyond the confines of the courtroom in The Hague.
In fighting the prosecution’s efforts to try him on charges of crimes against humanity, relating to the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya which left more than 1,000 people dead, Kenyatta mobilised the African diplomatic community to oppose the court and its biases against Africans.
This was a rare instance of genuine pan-African unity, even if its motivation was leaders’ own self-interest. Kenya’s vehement position on international justice also led to the resolution in June to give African leaders and senior officials immunity from prosecution at the proposed new African Court of Justice and Human Rights.
The international pressure on the court contributed to the prosecution’s decision on 3 December to withdraw the charges against Kenyatta.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda maintains that there is still a case for him to answer, but that there just isn’t enough evidence to guarantee a conviction; and, tellingly, that the Kenyan government has failed to cooperate fully with the court in providing key documents.
This, of course, is hardly a surprise given that the accused is the head of that government. Even if Kenyatta was not directly responsible for Kenya’s intransigence, it is hard to believe that the government would have been as obstinate had a political rival been in charge.
The ICC has been only one part of the Kenyatta story in 2014. Another major element has been the continuation of the Kenyan military incursion into Somalia, which is entering its fourth year. Kenyan troops are now incorporated into the African Union, and have made significant inroads against Al Shabaab.
The Muslim terrorist group — always the primary target of the intervention — has been pushed out of most major strongholds, and deprived of key revenue sources.
While this has yet to contribute to a more stable or prosperous Somalia, it’s an important start, provided that the Somali government and its foreign allies can get the political process right.
For Kenya, the main consequence of its Somali adventure has been a spate of terrorist attacks on the home front as Al Shabaab make good on their promise to wreak vengeance on Kenya. Hundreds have died this year in dozens of separate attacks (the bloodiest being the Mpeketoni attack, which killed more than 60 people), with Kenyan security forces powerless to protect citizens.
Kenya’s increasingly hardline counter-terrorism measures have not appeared to help. In an effort to appear tough and strong on terrorism, Kenyatta has overseen a wave of arrests targeted at ethnic Somalis (even those of Kenyan descent); and a series of extrajudicial killings and incidents of torture committed by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit. He is also increasingly relying on the military to counter Al Shabaab domestically, in the process blurring the lines between military and police competencies.
Journalist Lee Mwiti describes Kenyatta’s domestic initiatives as creating “soft military state”. It’s a dangerous path, and runs contrary to Kenya’s long history of strong civilian government.
On a positive note, Kenyatta has also spearheaded the regional drive towards greater cooperation and integration within the East African Community (EAC).
This year, the EAC introduced a single tourist visa linking Kenya with Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda; and implemented a Single Customs Territory between the same four countries. In addition, Kenya has joined Rwanda in abolishing work permit fees for EAC nationals, thereby removing a major barrier to commercial integration.