NAIROBI, Kenya — Thursday evening was a watershed moment in Kenya’s political history. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s founding father, current deputy prime minister and finance minister, presidential aspirant and one of Kenya’s best known politicians, appeared before judges at the International Criminal Court to defend himself against charges of crimes against humanity.
The proceedings were streamed and broadcast live from The Hague, beamed into homes and bars across Kenya.
Kenyatta is one of six men accused of planning ethnic attacks during the political and tribal violence that tore through Kenya after disputed elections in 2007. Around 1,200 people died — hacked, burned and shot to death — while hundreds of thousands were chased from their homes and had their land stolen and possessions looted.
When Kenya failed to make any steps towards bringing about justice for the deadly mayhem, the ICC stepped in.
Underway now are a series of hearings after which ICC judges will decide whether the six accused have a case to answer or not. Kenyatta is the only one to take the unusual and risky step of appearing as a witness in his own defense.
During hours of cross-examination by his own defense lawyers and then the prosecution, Kenyatta sought to portray himself as an urbane and responsible politician, an inclusive peacemaker rather than a divisive ethnic baron.
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He was only partly convincing, but nor did prosecutors land any hammer blows.
Unsurprisingly Kenyatta also sought to lay the blame for the post-election violence on Raila Odinga, his main political rival who also serves as prime minister in the current coalition government put in place to end the killing. Kenyatta said Odinga bore “political responsibility” for the violence, though stopped short of accusing him of criminal behavior.
Perhaps more important than the content of the hearings has been the fact of them.
Kenya has a long and ignoble history of impunity for politicians and elites: Never before have Kenya's senior political leaders or the wealthy and well-connected been held to account, nor have they appeared before judges considered above the bribery that commonly hobbles Kenyan trials.
The ICC process is looking more and more like a turning point in Kenya’s modern history.