In an unexpected move, President Uhuru Kenyatta on Monday surrendered power to Deputy President William Ruto for him to attend court on Wednesday at The Hague.
The transfer of power was achieved with high theatre, with Mr Kenyatta arriving at Parliament to a guard of honour and the National Anthem and leaving his office at Harambee House without the usual ceremony of a presidential escort.
The decree signed by Mr Kenyatta handing over to Mr Ruto was unprecedented in the country and his willingness to forego, for a while, the public ceremonies of power, was quite unusual.
He said he was temporarily surrendering power because of his determination to end his case at The Hague without dragging the “sovereignty of Kenya (or) 40 million Kenyans” with him in the crimes against humanity charges which stemmed from the 2007/8 post-election violence.
The opposition Cord dismissed the ceremonial hand over as a political show, pointing out that it was a fairly routine thing that happens every time the President leaves the country.
But by temporarily handing over, Mr Kenyatta is able to argue that he is attending the court as he was charged — an ordinary citizen.
His court attendance was fraught with symbolic and diplomatic difficulty.
On the one hand, having mobilised the African Union to issue a resolution barring the continent’s presidents from submitting to ICC proceedings, it would have been difficult to forget that position and present himself in court as Head of State.
On the other hand, in terms of nationalist symbolism, it would have been politically damaging to drag the nation’s sovereignty through the mud of international criminal proceedings.
Not that it matters to the ICC itself which has been clear that Mr Kenyatta was charged as an individual, not as President, and will be addressed in court without the usual honours.
KEPT COUNTRY GUESSING
Mr Kenyatta, who had kept the country guessing on whether he would obey the orders issued last Tuesday by the ICC’s Trial Chamber judges, used his speech to Parliament to address four constituencies: the court, whose orders he affirmed his willingness to obey, Western powers, whom he assured of his commitment to the rule of law and the African Union, to whose resolutions he remained at least nominally faithful.
“To protect the sovereignty of the Republic of Kenya, I will shortly sign a legal notice appointing Hon William Ruto as acting President while I attend the status conference,” he told a special sitting of Parliament in the afternoon.
“Therefore, let it not be said that I am attending the Status Conference as the President of the Republic of Kenya. Nothing in my position or my deeds as President warrants my being in court.”
He told his political rivals who had declared that the ICC case was a personal matter: “So, to all those who are concerned that my personal attendance of the Status Conference compromises the sovereignty of our people, or sets a precedent for the attendance of presidents before the court — be reassured, this is not the case.”
A few minutes later, the effect of the hand-over was clearly seen as Mr Kenyatta left his Harambee House office in a private vehicle without his presidential standard and the national flag.
The decision is provided for under Article 147(3) of the Constitution which allows the Deputy President to act as President when the holder of the seat is absent or incapacitated.
However, an acting president does not exercise the full powers of the president.
Earlier in the day, President Kenyatta had chaired the National Security Council (NSC) meeting and a Cabinet sitting — both attended by Mr Ruto — to prepare him for the tasks of leading the country.
Mr Ruto’s security was immediately enhanced, he was assigned an aide-de-camp and an escort commander put in charge of his security.
His station of duty for the next two or three days moved across the road from Harambee Annex to Harambee House. He was also given a brief about what the enhanced duties will entail.
The duties include chairing the NSC, the Cabinet, Cabinet committees and directing and coordinating the functions of government ministries and departments.
When he left Harambee House 15 minutes later, he was driven away in a presidential limousine with outriders befitting his new role.
Mr Ruto becomes the second acting President in Kenya after Mr Daniel arap Moi who acted for 90 days in August 1978 when the founding father of the nation, Jomo Kenyatta, died in his sleep.
Mr Kenyatta used his speech to protest his innocence and urged Kenyans and African leaders who have supported his cause in fighting the charges at the ICC to understand his decision.