NAIROBI — Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, at the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta of neighbouring Kenya, launched a scathing attack on the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday, saying it had become a tool of blackmail by foreign powers keen to eliminate African leaders they did not like.
Mr Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, took the oath of office before 60,000 cheering Kenyans at a soccer stadium in Nairobi. They are both indicted by the ICC for bearing "the greatest responsibility" for the violence that followed Kenya’s botched elections in 2007.
Both have pledged to co-operate with the court but have denied any culpability.
Mr Museveni spoke at the colourful event attended by foreign dignitaries including President Jacob Zuma, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, as well as the leaders of Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon.
Mr Museveni mocked the ICC, whose case against Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto could collapse after key witnesses recanted their evidence or have declined to testify in the aftermath of the duo being elected to lead Kenya.
"I want to salute Kenyans on one other issue — the rejection of the blackmail by the ICC and those who seek to abuse this institution for their own agenda," Mr Museveni said to cheers.
"I was one of those that supported the ICC because I abhor impunity. However, the usual opinionated and arrogant actors using their careless analysis have distorted the purpose of that institution. They are now using it to install leaders of their choice in Africa and eliminate those they do not like," Mr Museveni said.
About 1,300 people were killed and as many as 650,000 displaced during the violence. Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto, and broadcaster Joshua Sang, are due to stand trial at the ICC in The Hague. Cases against three others were deemed too weak to proceed.
Mr Museveni said the violence after the 2007 elections was regrettable and must be condemned but the ICC was no solution. "A legalistic process, especially an external one … cannot address those events."
But Human Rights Watch urged Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto to co-operate with the ICC, arguing victims of the violence had waited too long for justice.
"Kenyatta and Ruto should be held to their promises to attend their trials before the ICC," said Elizabeth Evenson, senior international justice counsel at the New-York-based Human Rights Watch.
"As president of an ICC member country, Kenyatta should also ensure that his government provides the co-operation it owes the ICC and the support it needs. Victims of Kenya’s post-election violence and their families have already waited more than five years for justice," she said.
Commentators in the Kenyan media have long argued that the ICC’s Kenya investigation was well below par, and that the court’s prosecution was based on political bias rather than criminal evidence. They argue that former president Mwai Kibaki — who handed power to Mr Kenyatta on Tuesday — and former prime minister Raila Odinga, as leaders of the warring parties in 2007, had more to explain about their roles in the violence or attempts to end it than the new ruling duo, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto.
The US and UK had pointedly told Kenyans to "vote wisely" during the March elections, warning that electing ICC accused would have "consequences". The warnings had the unintended consequences of rallying Kenyans behind the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket.
Mr Kenyatta is the son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta. His inauguration was attended by some of his late father’s close friends, including former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.