‘Poison-pen’ letter increases Kenya’s pre-poll tension
Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga revealed Wednesday he received a letter threatening "consequences" if presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) was barred from contesting the March 4 poll. Kenyatta has pulled out of next week’s debate.
Barely two weeks after Kenya won international acclaim for successfully conducting its first-ever presidential debate, the perilous threats confronting the March 4 election were underlined on February 20 when the country’s chief justice revealed he had received a threatening letter and one of the main presidential candidates pulled out of an upcoming presidential debate.
At a press conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi Wednesday, Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said he received a “poison-pen” letter threatening him with "dire consequences" if the courts barred presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta from contesting next month's election.
Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are among four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the disputed 2007 presidential polls. More than 1,000 people were killed and over 600,000 displaced during the ethnic violence, which ended with a power-sharing agreement that saw Mwai Kibaki take on the presidency and his rival, Raila Odinga, made prime minister. Kibaki steps down this year after two terms in office.
The threatening letter, a copy of which was obtained by FRANCE 24, bore a handwritten signature, “the Mungiki Veterans Group/Kenya Sovereignty Defence Squad". The Mungiki is a banned Kenyan militia group that was heavily involved in violence after the 2007 poll.
While the credibility and authorship of the letter has not been established, Mutunga noted that, “given the history of this country, such a public disclosure is warranted, necessary, and proper”.
Mutunga’s public disclosure came days after the country’s high court eased the way for Kenyatta’s presidential bid, last week, by refusing to rule in a case seeking to bar the ICC-charged politician from running for office.
The high court decision maintained that it lacked the authority to decide who is eligible to run for president and that it was a matter for the supreme court to decide.
Speaking to journalists on February 20, Mutunga also said five other judges had been attacked ahead of the elections and that there was an unsuccessful attempt by a Kenyan immigration official to bar him from visiting neighbouring Tanzania.
“The threat to the chief justice is very real,” said seasoned Horn of Africa analyst Abdullahi B Halakhe. “I am not surprised by it – the judiciary, and especially the chief justice, have been steadfast in calling and sticking to the reform agenda. That worries the forces of status quo. The public is wholly behind Mutunga-he’s the conscience of the nation. It just illustrates to what extent people can go to win this elections.”
Running government ‘by Skype from The Hague’
The latest pressures on Kenya’s judiciary came as Kenyatta pulled out of the second presidential debate, set for February 25, because he claimed he had been “unfairly treated” in the first debate earlier this month.
In a letter to the presidential debate organizing committee, Kenyatta’s campaign said the candidate’s time would be better spent on the campaign trail instead of attending a "skewed, shambolic and farcical debate".
But not many Kenyans inside and outside the country who watched the February 11 debate would characterize the historic face-off as “shambolic” or “farcical”. “I think most Kenyans approved of how the first debate was conducted,” said Adjoa Anyimadu, a researcher at the London-based Chatham House. “Kenyans certainly approved of seeing the candidates up against each other.”
The slickly-produced February 11 debate was broadcast live by all eight Kenyan TV stations, 34 radio stations and streamed live on the internet, the country’s eight presidential candidates faced off at a Nairobi high school. Tribalism and the ICC charges dominated the proceedings, providing some of the most dramatic moments in the more than three-hour debate. The ICC case – dubbed “the elephant in the room” – also provided Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, his finest TV moment of the 2013 campaign so far.
Kenyatta, the smooth-talking deputy prime minister and son of Kenya’s founding father, was at pains to stress that he was innocent and could fulfill his presidential duties while appearing at The Hague trial set to start in April. Odinga, the prime minister and son of Kenya’s first vice-president, immediately shot back: “I know it’s going to cause serious challenges to run the government by Skype from The Hague.”
Responding to the debate pullout, Odinga’s political alliance issued a statement Wednesday that it was not surprised by the decision.
When bitter rivals come together
The first debate was widely hailed as a major step in Kenya’s democratic process with some Kenyans noting that it may be a tentative sign that the country could be moving toward a less destructive form of politics. Others expressed the hope that by coming together to discuss issues, public debates could reduce the likelihood of post-electoral violence.
“It was a good thing,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “It showed that people who are antagonistic to each other could come together on stage and sit in the same room. Some people even suggested that it could decrease the tensions.”
But that was before one of Kenya’s main presidential candidates decided to opt out of the debate and the country’s chief justice revealed that he was being threatened. In this East African nation, tensions are increasing - not decreasing - ahead of the much-awaited poll.