Pick a day, any day, and the news headlines are a variation on a theme. First comes the latest chapter in the ICC case, followed by a flurry of features on the escalating violence threatening the nation’s social fabric. Lost in the sensationalism is the fact that these are two faces of a far bigger story — Kenya’s place in the world.
Begin with the violent crime that has come to dominate daily life in ways seldom seen before. On a single day last week, media could report on the kidnapping of two 15-year-old girls, taken off their school bus by men dressed as police officers.
In Mombasa, a boy kidnapped two weeks earlier is found in Malaba, a thousand kilometres away. In Nairobi, a businessman is taken by gangs who hack his guard to death. Other gangs wage a raging gun-battle for control of a city dump. Still others carjack or rob half a dozen people in daylight at the town centre, again posing as police officers.
How do criminals come to possess official uniforms, radios, cars and guns, people reasonably ask? Rumour suggests they are often “rented out” by police officers seeking to make a little cash on the side. If so, it is small wonder that growing numbers of citizens see the police as a public enemy.
How does this relate to the debate swirling around the International Criminal Court? Writing in the Sunday Nation a few weeks ago, former US assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer argued that the cases against President Kenyatta and his deputy, Mr William Ruto, should be dropped. Reason: they have distracted global attention from the real threat — the so-called global war on terror.
Perhaps more importantly, she argued, the charges were too casually brought. Kenyatta has since made the same point with growing vehemence to the African Union. The matter is now before the UN Security Council. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called on African leaders to honour their commitment to the court.
Nonetheless, there is strong feeling within the upper reaches of the UN that the ICC has been unnecessarily inflexible — even provocative — in the way it has handled the Kenya brief.
How the Council rules will largely be up to the Permanent Five. Whatever the decision, however, great damage has been done.
At home, violence and the ICC have become eerily interwoven. Normally serious analysts speculate darkly about a weird “choreography of violence”, offering seemingly crazy conspiracy theories linking the timing of the Westgate Mall massacre to ICC court dates.
Is law and order breaking down in Kenya, they ask dramatically, or is that the impression some are trying to create in the run-up to the ICC vote?
All this feeds a growing tide of public mistrust that permeates everything from the President’s commission of inquiry into the September terrorist attack to doubts about the government’s ability to provide the most basic services, beginning with public safety.
Abroad, the reputation of a country that has widely been seen as the brightest star of a rising Africa has been tarnished. Will Kenya become the portal to a better future for all of Africa, experts ask, or will it lead a slide back toward the past?
Mr Meyer, former communications director for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at the Aga Khan University in Nairobi.