Teaching Kenya’s history alongside writing about its current politics provides many moments of insight.
Sometimes, such as when discussing the Shifta war with students in the aftermath of the Westgate attack, this can produce a sense of déjà vu and continuity. At others, the stark contrast between the past and the present is what is most striking.
Last week I was discussing the Kapenguria trial with the bright undergraduates I am fortunate to teach here in Britain.
What struck us all as we scrutinised the transcript of the trial was the dignity with which Jomo Kenyatta and his fellow defendants conducted themselves in the face of injustice and provocation.
Kenyatta’s final statement to the court after being found guilty on the trumped-up charges of leading Mau Mau is particularly stirring. ‘What we have done and we shall continue to do, is to demand the rights of African people as human beings that they may enjoy the facilities and privileges in the same way as other people,’ Kenyatta told his persecutors.
Kenyatta’s performance in the courtroom on that day in 1953 was typical of the role of the reconciler that he played to great effect for much of his political career. Elegantly summarised as ‘suffering without bitterness’ in the title of his 1968 collection of speeches and other writings, this attitude later gave way to intolerance of dissent. But that is a matter for another day.
Jomo Kenyatta’s conduct during his trial and incarceration was informed by a vision of what lay ahead for Kenya. The prospect of eventual independence shaped everything he did and said in those most fraught of times.
That dignity and a longer-term perspective are strikingly absent from the foreign policy of his son’s government. Instead, members of the Jubilee Alliance seem to be in a competition to adopt the most absurd and hypocritical position towards the supposed dark forces lurking behind the ICC process.
Sentiments that would have resulted in a trip to the torture chambers at Nyayo House in the 1980s have become part of the vernacular of the government.
Last month, Nancy Gitau, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s chief advisor on political affairs, told The Standard that she thinks NGOs are ‘agents of neo-colonialism.’ She worked for the American government for 17 years.
Earlier this month, Laikipia’s governor, Joshua Irungu, threatened to break off relations with Britain. He is, reportedly, currently in Britain seeking investment.
Last week, we witnessed the fiasco of the expulsion of British diplomats from a hotel in Eldoret. Governor Jackson Mandago has subsequently also visited Britain to find investment.
Such incidents have been rightly lambasted in the press. However, it is important that the noise generated by these episodes do not distract us from the far more serious damage being done by allowing the ICC process to dictate the terms of Kenya’s foreign relations.
Far from conducting itself without bitterness, the current government seems to revel in its acrimonious relations with its erstwhile allies.
Foreign Affairs secretary Amina Mohamed would no doubt argue that the alterations agreed on Thursday to the Statue of Rome justify the approach to diplomacy that she and others have adopted over the past few months. To many countries, however, the tenor in which Kenya is conducting its foreign relations seems absurd.
While the Kenyan government and its African allies reiterated their claims of the ICC being a tool of neo-colonialism ahead of the Security Council vote, there seemed little appreciation of the effect such an argument would have on countries holding the deciding votes.
Argentina, no friend of Britain, abstained. So too did Guatemala.
The UK and US governments will decide that their interests in Kenya are significant enough to ignore the taunts of Irungu and others of his ilk. But other countries with equally significant interests in Kenya but without the same deeper-rooted historical relationship may not be so tolerant.
Despite Japan being a major trading partner and source of investment, its ambassador to Nairobi has been among the group of diplomats who have been prevented from presenting their credentials to Kenyatta. This is apparently a punishment for Japanese support of the ICC. Can Kenya really afford to continue to offend the likes of Japan in order to protect Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta?
Mr Kenyatta has the personal right to try to escape prosecution, but it is his duty as president to uphold the interests of Kenya at all times.
The country needs a foreign policy that secures its future, not just the freedom of two men. A little of the dignity, courage and foresight exhibited by his father at Kapenguria is needed.
Prof Branch teaches history and politics at Warwick University, UK [email protected]