If it is true that the Jubilee government refused to participate robustly in the two-hundred and thirty-seventh Independence Day celebrations of the United States of America because the President of the United States refused to visit Kenya during his recent Africa sojourn, then things are getting a wee bit out of hand. It is one thing to pretend that the indictment and imminent trials of the President and Deputy President at the International Criminal Court are no bar to the duo seeking high government office. It is something else to pretend that these indictments and imminent trials will not affect the diplomatic relations between Kenya and its "development" partners.
Just as Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto have a domestic political constituency to satisfy, so too does Barack Obama. Many may not realise this, but politics in the United States is shaped largely by domestic concerns of powerful civil society groups and a free press. The radio personalities known as shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh have the capacity to mobilise hard-core voters for or against a president if they are convinced that his policies and relationships are a threat to the "American way of life." So, in the middle of a fraught political crisis back home, it was not going to be that Barack Obama would visit Kenya when Senegal was making such great progress in democratisation, or South Africa continued to play the role of primus inter pares among the members of the African Union. But his visit to Tanzania must have been the salt being rubbed in Kenya's diplomatic wounds.
Tanzania is nowhere near Kenya's level on adult literacy or economic growth. There are more publicly traded companies on the Nairobi Securities Exchange than are in the pipeline awaiting approval to join Tanzania's. In the minds of the mandarins in Kenya's Executive, we are the engine of the East Africa Community and it was a great snub for our southern neighbour to bask in the glow of an American president's visit simply because our President and Deputy President are facing the minor personal challenge of a trial at The Hague for international crimes.
The Executive's reaction sends a powerful message to the "West" that if the ICC trials will affect how Western powers treat us, we too are prepared to calibrate our behaviour in the light of their calibrations. This makes a complex relationship near impossible to manage. Mwai Kibaki set off on his Look East policy not knowing how it would change the relationship with the West. Uhuru Kenyatta will pick off from where Mwai Kibaki left off and enhance the ties that Kenya has built, especially with China.
A word of caution is warranted, though. It is dangerous for Kenya to place all its eggs in the Look East basket. China is also undergoing tremendous changes and sooner or later it is going to be faced with the problem of a growing middle class that is more assertive. The demands for democratisation of the People's Republic will force the Middle Kingdom to calibrate its relations with less desirable politicians and states. Whether we like it or not, for the moment, even though the Chinese are big investors in our economy, we crave the technology and approval of the West. It was unwise to snub the US during their independence celebrations; it will not change the facts on the ground. If the trials of the two are deferred or cancelled, the US may have no reason not to attempt to rekindle its former relations with Kenya. It is the way of the world.