NAIROBI — Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, ascended to the country’s top office Tuesday during a jubilant celebration that began a new era in Kenyan politics, one that forces the United States and Europe into a diplomatic balancing act.
Amid the dancing and cheering of a sea of red-clad supporters, Kenyatta and his deputy made obvious their displeasure at U.S. and European efforts to steer Kenyan voters to another candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
The United States and Europe had hoped to avoid having a Kenyan leader who is now the second sitting African president, after Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to face International Criminal Court charges. Kenyatta, 51, is accused of crimes against humanity for allegedly helping to orchestrate the vicious tribe-on-tribe violence that marred Kenya’s 2007 presidential election.
The United States has said that a Kenyatta win would have “consequences,” although many analysts say the effects will turn out to be minimal, given that Kenya is the linchpin of East Africa’s economy and a major security partner, especially in the fight against Somali militants.
Incoming Deputy President William Ruto, who also faces ICC charges for the 2007-08 violence, noted that he and Kenyatta won in the first round of voting despite the U.S. warning.
Kenyatta repeated words that he said after the election commission first named him the winner.
“I assure you again that under my leadership, Kenya will strive to uphold our international obligations, so long as these are founded on the well-established principles of mutual respect and reciprocity,” he said.
As the swearing-in was administered, the crowd roared so loudly that it interrupted the ceremony. The U.S. ambassador attended, as did U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who was invited by Kenyatta.
The pageantry stood in stark contrast to a rushed ceremony closed to the public five years ago to swear in President Mwai Kibaki, whom political opponents accused of stealing the 2007 vote. Those suspicions set off weeks of tribal violence that killed more than 1,000 people.
The violence drew in ICC investigators. Kenyatta denies the charges against him and has pledged to cooperate with the court. His trial is scheduled to begin in July, although many analysts have said that they doubt the case will go forward. Ruto faces similar charges in a trial set for May.