The grand welcome laid out for President Uhuru Kenyatta’s return from The Hague underlines the extent to which his machinery remains keen to reap political capital out of the International Criminal Court cases.
The massive crowds that lined the streets from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the city centre from dawn on Thursday were not just a spontaneous outpouring of support, but the result of carefully choreographed political mobilisation.
It was intended to replicate the multitudes that came out to demonstrate solidarity with Mr Kenyatta and Mr William Ruto when they were indicted by the ICC ahead of the 2013 General Election.
The images of President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto in shirtsleeves sharing the open sunroof of the presidential limousine were indeed reminiscent of those heady days and the euphoria under which the Jubilee coalition was crafted.
An added element was in the affirmation of a lasting partnership and trust on the heels of President Kenyatta’s unprecedented decision to appoint Mr Ruto acting president while he attended to The Hague.
If some of Mr Ruto’s Rift Valley supporters had doubts whether President Kenyatta would keep his part of the bargain once his term was over and support their man’s bid for State House, some of those fears might have been stilled by the dramatic decision.
The acting presidency had served to switch debate from the issue of honouring or defying the ICC summons; and also caught flatfooted an opposition struggling to be heard in the excitement of the new development.
Whether by coincidence or design, opposition leader Raila Odinga and his Cord coalition co-principals Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang’ula were out of the country on separate junkets when President Kenyatta made his triumphant return.
TURN THINGS AROUND
The ICC summons had caused great discomfort in President Kenyatta’s State House, but it was clear that he had managed to turn things around by directing and exploiting a new debate that managed to remove from media headlines both the opposition Okoa Kenya and the Council of Governors’ Pesa Mashinani referendum campaigns.
On Wednesday evening, Cabinet Secretary for Interior Joseph ole Lenku sent out a statement on his official letterhead asking Kenyans to turn out in large numbers to cheer the President on his arrival, giving the route and timelines.
The statement served as an indication of the extent to which the government’s administrative and security machinery was being deployed in support of the “homecoming” festivities already being put in place by President Kenyatta’s political machinery.
Information made available to the Sunday Nation indicates that no effort was spared to ensure that the President received a heroic welcome.
Even as he was boarding his flight to the Netherlands on Tuesday morning, a group of TNA politicians, particularly in Nairobi and neighbouring Kiambu County, had been assigned to mobilise crowds for the welcome home party, hiring buses, matatus and coordinating other forms of facilitation to ensure a record turnout.
A specific brief was to make sure that the President attracted more impressive numbers than the multitudes that welcomed opposition leader Raila Odinga on his return from a three-month trip to the United States in May.
But the bigger imperative was to ensure that President Kenyatta was received as a triumphant hero who went to the lion’s den and emerged victorious; rather than as the President who was forced to eat humble pie and obey the ICC summons despite all the “can’t go, won’t go” rhetoric.
From the moment the ICC bench declared that the President must personally attend the status conference on his case, there was anger and despondency at State House.
The President and his key advisers were genuinely flabbergasted that he was being asked to be present at a hearing where he would not be required to take the dock or otherwise directly participate.
The start of his trial was already on indefinite hold following admission by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that she had no evidence to sustain a case.
The summons, therefore, raised grounds for suspicion that something sinister was afoot.
At the basic level was anger that the whole thing was designed to humiliate President Kenyatta by making him the first-ever head of state to sit in the courtroom.
Some even feared that the “critical” stage in the case the judges alluded to had something to do with a move for the judges to rule in favour of prosecution charges that the Kenya Government, at the President’s behest, was actively sabotaging the case by withholding evidence and intimidating, bribing and even eliminating witnesses.
Such a finding, they feared, would provide grounds for the court to do away with the lenient conditions under which Mr Kenyatta is excused from personal appearance at most sessions, and order his detention.
When the court threw out his challenge against personal appearance, the outcome was palpable anger in Mr Kenyatta’s inner circle.
The initial feelings were that the court had gone too far, and it was time the President took a firm and defiant stance whatever the consequences.
WOULD BE SELF-DEFEATING
Many of the President’s advisers were confident that — with the prosecution case seemingly on the verge of collapse and many Western governments, including the United States, having conceded that it is no longer useful to isolate and shun President Kenyatta — the court could be defied without too many negative consequences.
It was with serious intentions of defying the summons that Jubilee coalition MPs and other politicians were detailed to whip up the public into an anti-ICC frenzy.
However, cooler heads in President Kenyatta’s closest advisers and his lawyers intervened strongly against such an action.
They pointed out that by boycotting the hearing, the President would be playing directly into the hands of the prosecution which wanted a declaration that his government was guilty of not cooperating with the court.
In any case, defying the summons at a stage when the case seemed on the verge of collapse would be self-defeating.
Therefore, it was determined that the President must honour the summons, but devise a strategy by which he would exploit the situation so that he emerges the conquering hero rather than the humbled suspect.
This decision, fine-tuned last week, was kept secret except to a few very close in an inner circle that comprises some key family members, old friends and political strategists. Even MPs who had been assigned to mobilise political support were kept in the dark.
The Cabinet ministers, MPs and other political supporters who were travelling to The Hague to show their support for the President were also not told that he had decided against defying the summons.
They were encouraged to proceed with their travel arrangements because, even if he was absent, the court, and the international community, still needed to see a strong demonstration of President Kenyatta’s support on the steps of the ICC courthouse.
Towards the end of last week, the big question was whether the President would attend. He was uttering no public statement, but encouraging his supporters to keep up the rhetoric against attendance.
By the time he wrote to House Speaker Justin Muturi asking for a special sitting of Parliament to address the issue, President Kenyatta had firmly made up his mind to travel to The Hague.
The mood of defiance which was occupying his supporters however had to be maintained, and this was accomplished with some well-choreographed disinformation campaign.
State House speechwriters were instructed to craft a speech making the case for defying the ICC.
But they were kept in the dark about the actual decision because, unknown to them, a close group of advisers meeting last Sunday were drafting in secret separate paragraphs justifying a decision to go to The Hague, with the sting in the tail being President Kenyatta’s temporary surrender of power and appointment of Deputy President Ruto as acting president.
Arrangements were then made to “leak” portions of the defiant speech indicating that the President would not travel.
Between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, journalists were inundated with “privileged” information from State House sources that the upcoming address in Parliament would witness an emphatic ‘No’ against the ICC trip.
The leakers, however, had no clue about the separate portion of his speech which was known only to a select inner circle comprising trusted family members, security officials and informal strategy advisers.
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