Nairobi, Kenya, Dec 5 – The dropping of crimes against humanity charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta lifts a heavy weight off his shoulders and eases sometimes problematic foreign relations.
The constant threat of trial at the International Criminal Court had overshadowed domestic challenges, with Kenyatta spending much of his presidency battling the accusations, winning the support of the African Union and grappling with frosty relations with Western powers.
His first year in power has been marred by a raft of challenges, not least repeated attacks by Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab rebels, who have carried out a string of massacres including the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
The withdrawal of the charges provides a major boost to his rule — with the president quickly proclaiming he had been “vindicated”.
Kenyatta took up his father’s mantle to become head of state after March 2013 elections, despite facing the ICC charges of involvement in violence in polls five years earlier.
Kenyatta, who had always maintained his innocence and spoken of his “disbelief” at the charges, became the first sitting leader to appear before The Hague-based ICC on charges of crimes against humanity.
For the powerful leader and one of Africa’s richest men, the ICC’s decision ends what he has called a “long and arduous journey to defend my name”.
Both Kenyatta, 53, and his deputy William Ruto, 47, were handed separate but similar charges by ICC for crimes against humanity over their alleged role in having orchestrated 2007-2008 post-election killings.
Kenyatta and Ruto, rivals in 2007, ran together in 2013 elections for the presidency and vice presidency, winning by a narrow margin in largely peaceful polls.
But Ruto’s trial continues, a matter that could yet provide challenges, since both ran together on an anti-ICC ticket.
– One of Africa’s richest men –
Uhuru, meaning “freedom”, and Kenyatta, the “light of Kenya” in Swahili, became president last year, five decades after his father, the country’s founding father and independence hero.
Kenyatta was born in 1961 shortly after the release of his father Jomo Kenyatta from nearly a decade in jail by British colonial forces, and two years before Kenya’s independence.
Today, the Kenyatta family owns vast swathes of some of the country’s richest lands, with a business empire also including major banking, media companies and a giant dairy business.
Educated in the United States at the elite Amherst College, where he studied political science and economics, he is viewed as the top political leader of the Kikuyu people, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, making up some 17 percent of the population.
Often dressed in sharply tailored suits, the married father-of-three exudes an image of power and entitlement.
But he also regularly dresses in jeans and a cap, and mingles comfortably not only with the elite he was born into, but also with the average Kenyan, cracking jokes using local street slang.
Kenyatta has said the ICC has been a troublesome distraction, but always stressed he would cooperate and was never the subject of an arrest warrant.
“This government has enough on its hands fighting poverty, securing the peace and building regional integration to be focused on any other matter,” he told parliament, before his October appearance in court.
In the 1990s, he joined with the sons of other independence heroes to call for reform but gradually drew closer to autocratic President Daniel arap Moi.
In the December 2007 election Kenyatta threw his weight behind then incumbent President Mwai Kibaki. But the polls rapidly descended into chaos and left over 1,100 dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Delays in the 2007 vote count saw violence erupt over suspicion that Kibaki was stealing the election.
ICC prosecutors say he mobilised the Mungiki — a sect-like criminal organisation known for skinning and beheading its victims — to attack opposition supporters.
The Kikuyu launched reprisal attacks in which homes were torched and people hacked to death in the worst outbreak of violence since independence in the east African nation, once a pillar of stability in the region.
Kenyatta has vowed he will ensure the “brief but painful conflict” of 2007-2008 will never be repeated.
“I am committed to ensuring that Kenyans never again have to endure such tribulations,” he said earlier this year.