Kenya firmly in China’s sights as the West ponders future ties

Saturday April 13 2013

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto Meet Mr Zhang Baowen, Vice Chairman of the National Congress and Special envoy of China during President Uhuru first day in office at State House Nairobi. Photo/PPS

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto Meet Mr Zhang Baowen, Vice Chairman of the National Congress and Special envoy of China during President Uhuru first day in office at State House Nairobi. Photo/PPS NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MUGUMO MUNENE [email protected]

In a diplomatic coup that was hardly noticed by observers, the Chinese flag took pride of place at the April 9 inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto.

That the Chinese flag was the only pennant of a foreign country outside Africa to occupy a flagstaff was certainly not happenstance.

Significantly, Beijing had sent a high-ranking special envoy to the ceremony while Western nations were represented by their ambassadors to Nairobi. Twelve African heads of state attended the ceremony.

Compared to those of Western capitals, especially London and Washington, Beijing’s choice is a pointer to the kind of foreign policy the Kenyatta administration is likely to pursue.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto assumed power after Western diplomats indirectly cautioned Kenyans against voting for the duo. They made it clear they did not wish to deal with ICC indictees. The full extent of how this will play out will be evident in the coming months and years since Kenya is a key ally in regional security and a traditional trading partner of the West.

The diplomatic dilemma for the United States and Europe was how to handle the political hot potato of dealing with a government headed by men charged with having committed crimes against humanity.

The Associated Press, an American wire service, reported from the inauguration that the United States and Europe had hoped to avoid having to deal with a Kenyan leader facing International Criminal Court charges.

Arrest warrant

Mr Kenyatta is the second sitting African president after Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir to face such charges. There is an outstanding arrest warrant against Mr al-Bashir but none against Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto who have promised to cooperate with the court and who are scheduled to stand trial at The Hague-based court in the coming months.

The New York Times, in turn, angled its story on the scathing attack on the ICC launched by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who said the Hague-based court “had fallen to the machinations of arrogant actors who wish to use it to determine who can run for elections in Africa and who cannot.”

The ICC has since issued a statement saying it did not have an interest in the outcome of the Kenyan election as it was a matter for the Kenyan people to decide.

But prior to the inauguration, the most pronounced statement of the unease with which the US and European nations approached the Kenyan elections was the warning by former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson that “choices have consequences”.

Britain weighed in and cautioned that they would only maintain “essential contact” with ICC indictees in keeping with their foreign policy.

Foreign relations expert Prof David Kikaya said the charges facing Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto, though troubling Western nations, are not a cause for alarm in Beijing.

Prof Kikaya, who is a former ambassador, said China was still working with Khartoum even when President Bashir was under pressure to grant South Sudan independence.

“The UhuRuto foreign policy architect was made to assure the East and particularly China that they will work with them. In Sudan, when most people were condemning Bashir prior to the independence of the South, China was still doing business with Khartoum. That must be made very clear,” said Prof Kikaya.

But he noted that the West will also have to come up with a formula to pursue their interests in Kenya even though they were vocal about choices and consequences.

“Each country will enter into relations, not out of clemency or magnanimity but for self-interest. Extremists call it selfish interests. Because of those interests, they will play ball.”

The British High Commission in Nairobi is understood to have lobbied the Foreign Office for permission to attend the inauguration, arguing that it was crucial for Britain to join the US and European nations at the event.

After the March 4 election, Mr Kenyatta’s team directly accused the British High Commissioner Christian Turner and Britain of favouring former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. This was part of an election strategy to paint Mr Odinga as a stooge of the West.

“There have been a lot of meetings and phone calls and now it has been decided that “essential contact only” includes attending the inauguration,” a European diplomat familiar with some of the discussions said.

Britain and Nairobi have numerous ties stemming from colonial days. British trade with Kenya is worth more than £1 billion (Sh129 billion) annually; more than half of the companies listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange are linked to Britain, and almost 200,000 Britons holiday in Kenya each year.

Kenya is also a vital UK military training base where an estimated 10,000 troops prepare for missions to the Middle East and elsewhere around the world where Britain has major security concerns.

So, as the West grappled with the election of ICC indictees, China, an emerging world power, kept its traditional silence as the election campaigns wore on. And when the election results were announced, Beijing sent a congratulatory message to Mr Kenyatta and the people of Kenya.

In the meantime, and because there was a court case challenging Mr Kenyatta’s election, the West only congratulated Kenyans for a peaceful election and avoided mentioning the winner by name. The full congratulatory message only streamed in two weeks later after the Supreme Court upheld Mr Kenyatta’s victory.

Following the Supreme Court judgment, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Mr Hong Lei, told a daily press briefing in Beijing that China “has noticed” the ruling.