Last week saw the election of Dep. PM Uhuru Kenyatta as President of Kenya, the 2nd biggest economy in Eastern Africa.

Most Ethiopians, however, are more familiar with his rival PM Raila Odinga, as part of the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections and the ensuing violence that saw him instated as Prime Minister.

Arguably, Odinga became a household name after a computer virus, named after him, destroyed Microsoft Word files – irreparably damaging those containing Geez characters – until the deployment of an effective anti-virus that made the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) famous.

For Ethiopians, who barely follow regional politics, the 2007 Kenyan election caught their attention, as it seemed a déjà vu of the vote rigging claims and violence that marred their election two years earlier.

Not a few among the Ethiopian opposition envied the Kenyan process, as the then opposition candidate Odinga managed to squeeze a prime ministerial job from his rival President Muawiya Kibaki. They even went as far as lashing out at their supporters for not being as firm as the Kenyans – although the price tag was the death of, by conservative estimates, more than 1,000 Kenyans and the displacement of at-least half a million.

Prominent opposition leaders, in Addis Abeba, publicly complained that  senior United States officials engaged in shuttle-diplomacy to broker a deal among the Kenyan rivals, while quiet diplomacy was employed in the case of Ethiopia.

Predictably, the level of Western involvement in Kenyan post-election crisis and the perceived bias towards Odinga did not go well with those in Addis Abeba. Even the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi urged visiting United States officials to be firm with Odinga and “not to encourage” him. Meles did not like the precedent that establishes, it appears, besides to whatever objective assessments he might have made.

That is no secret to Odinga, who had never been to Addis as Prime Minister. The grudge he held might be what prompted his preposterous claim last August, during Meles’ dying days, that he is “very concerned about developments in Ethiopia, knowing how fragile the politics are there”.

Odinga’s unfriendly remark has, however, roots deeper than a personal grudge. The short-sighted regional outlook of much of the Kenyan media and political elite. As a very diplomatic description on the Ethiopian Foreign policy document states:

“some Kenyans, who are still stuck on dependency, worry when neighbouring countries make economic progress and experience peace and democracy, thinking that Kenyamay lose both the prominence in the eyes of aid donors, and the advantages she has enjoyed for many years.”

“This leads them to view stability in neighbouring countries as contrary to their interest, and hence, to view the emerging situation with suspicion and some degree of envy.”

I would add, fortunately, they do not have the resources to actively pursue such wishes.

This Kenyan mentality is not a trivial matter.

Kenya’s share out of American economic assistance is 2.5 times higher than Ethiopia, in per capita terms, according to the February 2011 budget document by the White House. The same year, the amount of military assistance the Kenyan armed forces received from Pentagon was 33pc bigger than its Ethiopian counterparts, though the Western media impresses the contrary on its readers.

Not to forget, Kenya is often portrayed to Western investors as a stable country, some even say “regional stabilizer”, despite the fact that its capital city was bombed every other week by Al-Shabaab operatives, as a consequence of its year-long endeavour to capture a marginal 120 km piece of Somalian territory, near its border.

Of course, Kenya’s status as the West’s darling came with an opportunity cost. As a Kenyan analyst remarked a few years ago:

“it baffles many African observers just how condescending the relationship between Nairobi and Washington is, when they see American presidents lecture Kenyan presidents on how to govern their subjects”.

But, the Kenyan elite do not seem to mind it much, if comments by their political elite and the headlines of their newspapers are reliable indicators. That must have emboldened the West to go to the extent of telling Kenyans whom to vote for President.

While US President Obama took the liberty, last month, to give Kenyans a televised lecture about elections, other officials, from the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, were more straight forward. In an election where Odinga and Kenyatta are the forerunners, they warned against voting for Kenyatta, as he is indicted for the 2007 post-election violence by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which curiously spared Kibaki and Odinga.

The Western diplomats defiantly continued warning voters, even after the Kenyan Foreign Ministry demanded them to stop meddling in internal affairs. Something a diplomat in Addis could only dream of doing.

In spite of, and partly because of, the Westerners’ meddling, Kenyatta secured the job last week. American and European media and officials are weighing up their next move. But, their failure to send a congratulatory note to Kenyatta indicates their relation with Nairobi will be not be as cozy as it used to be.

What could this mean for Ethiopia?

The relations between Addis and Nairobi would not have been affected if Odinga was President. Officials in Addis downplay Odinga’s previous unfriendly remark, citing his public support for the Gil Gel Gibe-III dam. A project opposed by Kenyan civil society groups and their Western patrons, who together prefer him.

The impact of Kenyatta’s Presidency, however, is a dubious one.

On one hand, it seems he will maintain the status quo of Ethio-Kenyan relations given his affiliation with the ruling party and personalities that ruled Kenya since its independence.

However, as part of his successful electoral manoeuvre to use the ICC indictment and Westerners’ interference for his benefit, he stepped-up a rather nationalist rhetoric. It is to be seen if that will translate into an aggressive position in talks with Ethiopian officials; for example, on tribal border clashes, where Ethiopian militias are often accused, by Kenyan newspapers, of crossing the border at a whim.

Kenyatta as a President will likely be a strong ally in strengthening regional institutions, like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU), which would be his insurance, if push comes to shove with the ICC.

A more certain impact of the election last week is not what Kenyatta may or may not do.

Each day he spends in office is a reminder to Western diplomats and journalists that their role is not welcome all the time, even in a country they see as their own backyard.

Bashing Westerners has already become commonplace in many Kenyan newspapers, as well as on comment spaces of western news sites, which are portraying the new President as a “war criminal” and the Kenyan political system as a “messy affair”.

One would hope, in the years to come, that there will be fewer and fewer Westerners who take offence at their treatment in Addis Abeba comparing it to that of their colleagues in Nairobi – as it has been the case so far.


* A version of this article was first published on my column on Addis Fortune, on March 17, 2013, titled  “After Uhuru Comes Diplomatic Trouble”.

Daniel Berhane

more recommended stories