12 March 2013
Adjoa Anyimadu
Adjoa Anyimadu
Former Research Associate, Africa Programme


Despite delays, technical glitches and claims of interference, Kenyans have avoided the widely predicted run-off for the presidency, and Uhuru Kenyatta has been declared the country's next president. 

Kenyatta's main opponent, outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has alleged electoral fraud and will formally lodge an appeal with Kenya's Supreme Court. Despite this, Kenyans and the international community have begun to speculate what Kenya under a Uhuru Kenyatta presidency might look like.

Uhuru Kenyatta's first-round win was not predicted. While his 50.07 per cent majority was just enough to avoid a second round, it shows the challenge he now faces in leading a country where almost half of the population did not vote for him. Kenyatta was clear in his acceptance speech that he intends to 'extend a hand of friendship and cooperation' to all those, across all parties, who had also won elected positions. Reassuring Kenyans that their political system is more democratic and representative will be key if Kenyatta is to avoid accusations that his presidency will represent a continuation of the highly polarized politics of Kenya's recent past. 

Equally important for Uhuru Kenyatta will be maintaining a strong working relationship with Vice President-elect William Ruto. Ruto and Kenyatta came together under the banner of the Jubilee Alliance for the 2013 election, but were on opposing sides of the bitter 2007 race – Ruto at that time supported Raila Odinga to become president. A continuation of the broad-based Jubilee Alliance would go some way to entrenching peace between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin communities, which Kenyatta and Ruto are respectively seen to represent. 

The imminent trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for both the president-elect and vice president-elect, over their alleged involvement in orchestrating violence following the 2007 election, preoccupied many international observers throughout the campaigning period. But for the majority of Kenyans, the priority now will be whether the new president can see through the programme of economic, judicial and police reforms set into action by the 2010 constitution. Most immediate among these will be working out the relationship between the central government and the new governor, senator and county assembly level representatives voted in for the first time in this election. This devolution of power marks a major shift in the domestic political landscape of Kenya, where power has traditionally been highly centralized.

Diplomatic shift

Reporting the international reaction of the election results, some Kenyan media outlets emphasized the statements of countries, including the US and the UK, who applauded Kenyans on the process of their poll but did not congratulate Uhuru Kenyatta directly. For some, this was an indication of Western countries' dissatisfaction with the result, and a signal that they are likely to distance themselves from Kenya because of the ICC charges. 

While there may be a diplomatic shift, it is unlikely that Kenya's economic relationships will be curtailed by Uhuru Kenyatta's election. Kenya has long been the strongest economy in East Africa, and is increasingly chosen as the African base of multinational giants including Google and IBM. For international businesses eyeing Kenya as oil and gas discoveries take place, the peaceful election process, and the fact that Raila Odinga will challenge the results in the courts and not on the streets, are reassuring signs. 

Western companies may be keener to maintain good relations with Kenya, as before the election Uhuru Kenyatta indicated that the threat of sanctions based on his ICC indictment would lead him to look towards China and other emerging markets to build stronger economic relations. As a former finance minister and a successful businessman, Uhuru Kenyatta is well-placed to ensure that Kenya's economic strength stays a priority.

Strategic importance

Kenya is one of the United States' closest allies in Africa. It is significant that in the oft-quoted speech by Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, where he asserted that the Kenyan electorate must be aware that their choice of leader would 'have consequences', he also stated that Kenya is the US's most important partner in East Africa. The US's largest embassy in Africa is just outside Nairobi. Kenya is seen internationally as a frontline state against insecurity in neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan. 

Two days after Kenya's election results were announced, the ICC Prosecutor announced the intention to drop charges against Francis Muthaura, former head of Kenya's civil service and co-defendant of Uhuru Kenyatta. While Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda emphasized that Muthaura's was a unique case, his dismissal, which partly rests on evidence of the unreliability of a key witness, means that questions will be asked about the veracity of the case against Kenyatta. 

The world must wait to see if Kenyatta's trial does go ahead on 9 July. While there has been debate among Kenyans and in the media as to whether he will stick with his pledge to cooperate with the ICC, the new Kenyan constitution stipulates that the president is not immune from international charges, and going against this constitution would have severe repercussions at home. Discourse during the campaigning season on the part of both Kenyatta's Jubilee Alliance and by Western interlocutors may make relations slightly awkward going forward, but the importance of Kenya will outweigh any calls for a complete reversal in established cooperation.

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Read more:

Kenya's Elections: Rebuilding Reputation, Expert Comment, February 2013

The ICC Intervention in Kenya, Programme Paper, February 2013

Kenya Ahead of the Election, Transcript, January 2013