Kenyatta blasts UK – with a little help from British PR

Denis Bouclon

reporting from Kenya – Kenya’s presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta has accused Britain’s high commissioner of “animated involvement” in the country's election. But the involvement of a British PR company in promoting Kenyatta’s campaign has been strangely overlooked.


As Kenya’s vote-counting process sputtered, stalled and restarted on manual mode this week, fraying nerves and raising suspicions between rival camps, a top presidential candidate launched a controversial broadside against the international community -- this time, it was Britain.

In a statement released Wednesday, the political coalition led by Uhuru Kenyatta accused the British high commissioner in Nairobi of “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement” in Kenya’s 2013 general election.

Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are among four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced over 600,000.

In the lead-up to the March 4 poll, the Kenyatta-Ruto campaign has effectively cast international responses to the ICC case as a sign of Western interference in Kenya’s domestic affairs.

So, while the tone of the latest accusations may have startled some observers, the overarching theme of the statement by Kenyatta’s TNA (The National Alliance) party came as no surprise.

“It’s standard TNA-on-message,” said Horn of Africa analyst Abdullahi Halakhe. “They should even have a template for this. It’s been extremely useful on the campaign and it has worked. Is it morally wrong? Yes, it is. But who’s in politics for the morals here?”

But while Kenyatta’s latest salvo was aimed at Britain, his animus against the alleged British involvement in Kenya’s 2013 election runs only skin-deep.

Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, has hired a British PR firm, BTP Advisers, to work on his public image ahead of the ICC trial as well as his election campaign.

In a phone interview with FRANCE24, Mark Pursey, managing partner at BTP Advisers, said the firm had been giving “strategic advice on the election campaign and providing international media relations support since there’s an enormous amount of international interest in this election.”

Pursey however declined to provide details on how much the firm was paid for its services or the time-frame of its contract with Kenyatta.

While Kenya does not have a law requiring candidates to disclose campaign finance figures, local media reports estimate that Kenyatta – whose family ranked 26th on the 2011 Forbes list of Africa’s richest people – has spent 10 billion Kenyan shillings (100 million euros) on his presidential campaign.

‘A bit rich and entirely hypocritical’

The slickness of the Kenyatta campaign was evident in the lead-up to the March 4 election, with TNA rallies featuring the best entertainment acts performing for thousand-strong crowds dressed in the party’s ubiquitous red T-shirts and caps.

While hiring foreign PR companies is not new to Kenyan politics, Kenyatta’s use of a British firm is noteworthy given the campaign’s consistent demonizing of “Western imperialists” interfering in Kenya’s affairs.

“It’s a bit rich and entirely hypocritical,” said a foreign observer who declined to be named -- underlining the sensitivity of this issue in the international community. “I won’t be surprised if the British PR firm is responsible for crafting this statement against the British High Commissioner.”

But few Kenyans are aware of -- or bothered by -- the seeming incongruity of the situation.

“This is a contradiction that nobody wants to expose,” said Halakhe. “A lot of people don’t know this. The campaign has been hammering out a nationalist rhetoric and people have glibly followed this international conspiracy plot without connecting the dots.”

To reject or not to reject the rejected votes

The Kenyatta campaign statement came amid mounting disquiet over the slow vote-counting process following Monday’s polls, after the Kenyan election commission’s electronic counting system broke down earlier this week.

As suspicions mounted within Kenyatta’s and his archrival Raila Odinga’s camps, a heated debate was sparked over the issue of rejected votes.

On Tuesday, Issack Hassan, chairman of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), maintained that the new constitution decreed that election results should be based on “all votes cast”.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition, which is leading in the vote count, has been concerned that the inclusion of rejected votes would deny Kenyatta a first-round victory, forcing him into a runoff against Odinga.

‘Civil society groups are the enemy’

In its statement released Wednesday, Kenyatta’s coalition accused “the British High Commissioner, in cahoots with one Maina Kiai,” of “canvassing to have rejected votes tallied in an attempt to deny the Jubilee Coalition outright victory.”

Kiai, a prominent Kenyan human rights activist and UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, reacted swiftly to the statement.

“I find the mentioning of my name to be malicious and uncalled for,” said Kiai, in a phone interview with “The whole issue that I’m being dragged into is not about me, it’s about the constitution.”

A former chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), Kiai was at the helm in 2008 when the organization released a damning report on the violence following the December 2007 poll, which forms part of the evidence in the ICC trial.

“Maina [Kiai] is the perfect punching bag for them,” said Halakhe, referring to Kenyatta’s campaign. “Kenyan civil society groups are the ones who supported the ICC trial. For them, civil society groups are the enemy.”

But they’re not always a particularly effective enemy. A legal bid by civil society groups to block Kenyatta and Ruto from contesting the polls stalled last month when Kenya’s High Court ruled it had no jurisdiction to bar the duo from running.

In its decision, the High Court ruled that it was a matter for the Supreme Court to decide.

But with just two weeks to election day, there was no time for the case to work its way up the courts.

‘We don't give a rat's behind’ about ‘the mighty West’

In its response to the Jubilee Coalition’s accusations of “canvassing to have rejected votes tallied,” the British Foreign Office stressed that Britain had no position on how to handle the rejected votes, noting that it was up to Kenya’s election commission or the courts to decide.

It was not the first time the Kenyatta-Ruto campaign has succeeded in putting the international community on the defensive, earning support from the home base and taking the wind out of the Odinga campaign’s sails.

In the lead-up to the March 4 poll, Kenyan Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri -- a key Kenyatta ally -- summoned EU envoys last month after Britain, France and other EU countries suggested they would have only limited contact with a president facing charges of war crimes.

The EU summonses followed US Assistant Secretary of State Johnny Carson’s warning that Kenyans should be careful who they elect since "choices have consequences".

That comment sparked a furor across the country, roiling the discourse on social media sites and tapping into long-simmering misgivings about the “muzungu” – or “foreigner”, in Kiswahili.

"We don't give a rat's behind (who) says what. Kenya has moved on from hanging on each word from the 'mighty' West," read a comment on the country’s leading news site.

China to the rescue

The ICC case has put the international community in a delicate position over an issue that has polarised one of East Africa’s most stable nations and a key Western ally.

“It puts donor countries in a difficult situation,” explained Halakhe. “They have to appeal to a domestic audience, and tax-payer money can’t go to a country where the leaders have committed crimes against humanity.”

Although economists and analysts doubt a Kenyatta win would result in economic sanctions, the Kenyatta-Ruto campaign has been quick to note that Western sanctions would drive the Kenyan government deeper into the arms of its increasingly important trade partner, China.

Beijing has been characteristically silent about the ICC case.

As the vote-counting moves to its final tense stages with both the Kenyatta and Odinga campaigns strategizing their responses to the final results, silence is likely to be in short supply.

With the ICC trial set to start later this year, whether Kenyatta is elected president or not -- and no matter the reaction to the results --  one British PR firm’s involvement in a critical chapter in Kenya’s history is about to increase.

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