NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — As the four-day siege at Nairobi's Westgate mall ground to a bloody end, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta went on national television to decry the savagery of the attack by Islamist gunmen and urge his countrymen to stand firm against the forces of divisiveness.
He praised the thousands who rushed to donate blood to victims of the siege, noting the crowds came from across the spectrum of this multi-ethnic nation. "Deep inside, where it counts most, we are one, indivisible national family," said Kenyatta, who Friday attended the funeral of his nephew. Mbugua Mwangi, who was among those killed in the siege. "Let no one amongst us ever be blamed for dividing the people of Kenya."
But some are being blamed for doing just that in the past. Kenyatta foremost among them. He faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, accused of orchestrating murder and rape in Kenya's 2007-8 postelection chaos in which more than 1,000 were killed. His trial is scheduled to begin in November, making him the first serving head of state to be tried at The Hague.
If he proclaims himself a believer in a multi-ethnic nation, Kenyatta — like nearly all Kenyan politicians — is a master practitioner of ethnic politics, solidifying his political base among his Kikuyu tribe.
These are the two sides of Kenyatta, 51, an urbane, fabulously wealthy son of Jomo Kenyatta, the anti-colonial rebel hero who became the country's first post-independence leader. Uhuru — his name means "freedom" in Swahili — was educated at Amherst and returned home to become a businessman, oversee the family's vast landholdings and eventually turn to politics.
But prosecutors say he also has links to the Mungiki, a secretive, powerful group that is a cross between a grass-roots political organization and a gang of young Kikuyu thugs.The Mungiki began as a quasi-religious group dedicated to promoting Kikuyu culture in the 1980s and flourished during Kenyatta's failed presidential bid in 2002.
Kenyatta insists he is innocent of the charges, and will cooperate with the ICC investigation. His deputy, William Ruto, who faces similar charges, is already on trial, though Ruto was excused from the court this week, so he could return to Kenya to help deal with the mall siege.
But some here think Kenyatta is looking for ways to avoid the embarrassment of a trial — while also trying to look like he is cooperating, to avoid the possibility of an arrest warrant. Makau W. Mutua, a Kenyan-born professor at the law school of the State University of New York at Buffalo, said he expected Kenyatta to use the mall attack to try to defer the trial.
"I will be shocked if he does not try to manipulate emotions around the mall attack to get out of the ICC's grip," said Mutua, whose work often involves human rights and international law. Simply being out of the country so long to attend the trial could cause Kenyatta significant problems, giving political rivals more time to maneuver against him.
Perhaps reflecting this, Kenyatta's lawyers recently filed a motion asking judges to excuse the president from attending all but the opening and closing statements in his trial and the final judgment.
Kenyatta, for his part, insists he will cooperate with the ICC: "When you are innocent, there is nothing to worry about," he once told supporters. The ICC investigation has been, in many ways, a mixed experience for Kenyatta. While clearly embarrassing for his country, the Hague prosecution — along with comments from Western countries that they didn't want Kenyatta to win this year's presidential election — helped boost his support internally, allowing him to paint himself as a persecuted man standing up to the outside world.
Kenyatta has had a difficult time since being elected earlier this year. A massive, embarrassing fire at Kenya's main airport last month, and now the mall attack, have left him lurching from crisis to crisis, instead of dealing with the deep structural issues that Kenya faces: rampant corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, deep-rooted poverty and crumbling infrastructure.
"Now there is no concentration," on such issues," said Tom Namwamba, a professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. "The grip on management of the nation and delivery of services has totally diminished."
While Kenyatta came to power promising to address those deep-seated problems, it seems likely he'll have even less time to deal with them amid the mall investigation and, soon, the pressures of facing prosecutors in the Hague.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza contributed to this report.