Why Kenya’s Election Results Have The U.S. Holding Its Breath

Though the official results have yet to be announced, provisional results of Kenya’s presidential election leave the United States in a difficult position, forced to decide how to plan for a possible Kenyan president who has been indicted for crimes against humanity.

Still at question is whether the elections will be decided in this first round or require a run-off vote, along with whether the calm currently seen will continue after the results are announced. So far, violence has been scattered and low-level, with most of it either unrelated to the elections or proving isolated incidents rather than trends. However, the fighting that killed 1,200 people only truly began after the 2007 election results were announced, suggesting that Kenya may not be out of the woods yet.

The atrocities of 2007 cast a shadow on the current vote not just because of the risk of their recurrence, but because of the candidates themselves. As of Wednesday, provisional results have Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta as the top vote-getter and possibly managing to avoid a runoff. Kenyatta, along with his running mate William Ruto, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, stemming from their alleged role in the post-electoral killings five years ago.

The two have been cooperating with the ICC, but have been using the implication of Western meddling to stir up support for their campaign, with one voter calling the court a “tool of Western countries to manipulate undeveloped countries.” The beginning of Kenyatta and Ruto’s trial was originally scheduled to begin in April — right as a run-off vote would take place — but has been delayed until July in a victory for the two.

The United States has over the past year been unwavering in its backing of the democratic process in Kenya, offering both logistical assistance and moral support. But the chance of a Kenyatta presidency leaves the U.S. in a tough spot. Kenya is one of the U.S.’ strongest partners on counter-terrorism operations in East Africa, including in the fight against Islamist groups in Somalia such as al Shabaab. It also remains an economic hub in the region, making the choice between promoting international justice and national interests a challenge.

Aaron Hall, the Associate Director of Research at the Enough Project, believes that a Kenyatta victory could compromise U.S. ties with Kenya and complicate the credibility of the ICC. “While the U.S. should respect the democratic process and the will of the Kenyan people to elect their leaders, the election of Kenyatta and Ruto might cause the U.S. and many other western nations to diminish contact with the new Administration,” Hall said, calling it a possible critical blow to both countries.

That diminished contact may not last for very long, however, nor cut any lasting ties. Dr. Jennifer Brass, an assistant professor of African politics at Indiana University, says that the Obama administration would likely not vocally engage with Kenyatta and Ruto until the ICC trials are resolved, but would refrain from imposing sanctions on Kenya. “It’s not in the United States’ interest to sanction or ban people indicted [by the International Criminal Court] who are complying with the ICC,” Brass said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

Discussion of the election’s results is still sensitive for the U.S. government. A press official in the Department of Defense directed inquiries about any potential changes in the relationship with Kenya to the State Department, saying that any change in course would necessarily be a change in policy. State in turn denied a request for an interview on the subject. Deputy State Departmant Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell did, however, send out a statement on the elections, distinctly refusing to offer anything other than praise for the election process thus far. “We encourage all Kenyans to come together and move forward peacefully to realize the full promise and benefits of the new constitution,” Ventrell wrote.

The closest a U.S. official has come to tipping their hand on what a Kenyatta win would mean for U.S.-Kenya relations was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson on a press call in February, saying “it is also important to note that choices have consequences.” Exactly what those consequences may entail, however, is still being closely held.


Kenya’s election commission, due to technical difficulties, has scrapped the previous vote counts and is resorting to manual tallying. Kenyatta’s campaign is already accusing the United Kingdom of meddling in connection with the recount.

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