(CNSNews.com) – Early results in Kenya’s closely-watched presidential election early Tuesday give the lead to a man who if victorious would be the first head of state ever elected while wanted by the International Criminal Court.
By 6 AM Kenya time Tuesday (10 PM Monday EST), deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first post-colonial president and one of Africa’s wealthiest men, was leading with 54.8 percent of the votes counted so far while his close rival, prime minister Raila Odinga, was at 40.6 percent.
Six minor candidates lagged far behind, according to Kenya’s electoral commission, which estimated turnout at more than 70 percent.
If neither Kenyatta nor Odinga win more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in April.
Kenya’s last election, five years ago, sparked a dispute over results that led to the deaths of more than 1,100 people in horrific ethnic violence.
Kenyatta and his vice-presidential running mate, William Ruto, are among four Kenyans subsequently indicted by the ICC for allegedly stoking that violence. They are scheduled to stand trial in The Hague later this year.
Kenya has been an important Western ally in a sensitive part of the world, having played key roles in efforts to bring peace to Sudan and Somalia.
The prospect of a Kenyatta-Ruto victory could pose a dilemma for Western governments, particularly those like former colonial power Britain, which have a policy of shunning all “non-essential” contact with anyone wanted by the ICC.
The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute which created the ICC – the Bush administration opposed the ICC, arguing it could be abused to bring politically-motivated prosecutions against U.S. troops abroad, and President Obama has not reversed that. But the administration’s policy, as spelled out in the 2010 National Security Strategy, is to support “the ICC’s prosecution of those cases that advance U.S. interests and values, consistent with the requirements of U.S. law.”
Assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson, the administration’s top Africa official, warned Kenyans last month that “we live in an interconnected world and people should be thoughtful about the impact their choices have” – a remark widely interpreted as referring to the possibility of a Kenyatta victory.
Carson’s comments prompted some African analysts to wonder whether they might not reinforce the views of those who already see the ICC indictments as part of a Western-initiated attack on Kenya’s sovereignty, with the unintended result of boosting Kenyatta’s campaign.
Kenya is one of 33 African countries that are party to the Rome Statute, and it is therefore expected to cooperate with ICC prosecutors. How this would play out in the event of a Kenyatta win remains unclear.
Meanwhile if Odinga wins, experts have warned that if he sends his rival to The Hague, that could unleash fresh bloodshed in a country whose 50 years under independence has frequently witnessed inter-ethnic rivalry.
Odinga, an ethnic Luo, contested the last election and was widely expected to defeat incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. But Odinga was defeated amid allegations of vote-rigging, and violence erupted. Kenyatta is also a Kikuyu.
That Kenyatta and Ruto were allowed to run for the presidency and vice-presidency at all was controversial. The country’s top human rights body questioned the move, but when the case was taken up by Kenya’s high court it ruled that it lacked the jurisdiction to make a decision.
After the deadly violence that followed Kenya’s last election, Monday’s took place under tight security, and went relatively peacefully – despite an attack by secessionists in the coastal region that left up to 15 dead.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also wanted by the ICC, although he was already ruling Sudan at the time the tribunal brought charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against him, relating to the Darfur conflict.
Despite the indictment, Bashir has been able to travel relatively freely, especially in the African and Islamic regions but also to China, and to participate in multilateral gatherings.
Most of the countries that have welcomed him are not parties to the Rome Statute, although Kenya – which is – allowed Bashir to visit in 2010, did not meet its obligation to arrest him, and drew strong criticism for the decision, including from Obama personally.