Gambian war crimes lawyer Fatou Bensouda takes the oath to become the new prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) during a swearing-in ceremony at The Hague in the Netherlands June 15, 2012. Bensounda replaces Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina. REUTERS/Bas Czerwinski/Pool

The last time Kenyans voted for a president, allegations of electoral fraud triggered weeks of inter-ethnic violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives and pushed East Africa’s biggest economy towards civil war. Heading into next year’s presidential election, the country is gripped by a political drama in which the two leading contenders are accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of directing the bloodshed after the disputed ballot of December 2007.

Opinion is divided over whether individuals facing atrocity charges should run for high office, whether foreign judges should disrupt an African election and what it would mean to have a Kenyan president standing trial in The Hague. “Kenya is at a historic crossroads,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, an International Crisis Group researcher. “The country has all the ingredients it needs to become prosperous, but also, all the ingredients that led to the chaos of 2007 have not been fully addressed.”

Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, the former finance and higher education ministers respectively, are among four Kenyans facing ICC charges of directing the armed mobs behind inter-community killings in Nairobi’s slums, the Rift Valley and other multi-ethnic areas.

All four deny wrongdoing and say they will cooperate with the court, which has set trial dates for April next year. The first round of presidential voting will take place on March 4. Opinion polls show that Kenyatta, the multi-millionaire son of independence icon Jomo Kenyatta, is the second-most popular figure in a bitterly-contested leadership race that is dominated by Prime Minster Raila Odinga.

Senior public officials have said that Kenyatta and Ruto are eligible to stand for office, but human rights groups have asked the High Court to rule against their candidacy because of the ICC charges. Analysts say that Kenyans typically vote along ethnic lines and that electoral success involves striking power-sharing deals among various groups. “Political issues have started creeping into the campaign, but these are not felt as passionately as those of ethnicity,” said Adams Oloo, a political scientist from Nairobi University.

Nairobi-based researcher Halakhe said that the indicted candidates were stoking fears that the ICC is a neo-imperialist tool targeting African leaders, thus turning Kenya’s presidential vote into a “referendum on the ICC.” “Both Ruto and Kenyatta have significant media interests, and they are using the media to portray themselves as victims of a conspiracy of Raila Odinga, (ICC chief prosecutor) Luis Moreno Ocampo and (US President) Barack Obama,” he said.

“This narrative has tremendous traction, even among people who do not traditionally support either of them.” Kenyatta’s lawyer, Steven Kay, has accused the court of staging a “show-trial” to deter violence in future elections, according to the Daily Nation newspaper.

Aly Khan Satchu, a Kenya-based analyst, said that ICC pressure is a bulwark against Kenya sliding back into the violence of 2007, when it required foreign mediators to step in and broker a power-sharing deal. “The bottom line is it that the indictments were a game-changer for Kenya,” he said. “Levels of surveillance on leading politicians are so high now that if they go down the route of igniting tribal tensions then the next stop, for them, will be The Hague.”

Satchu, who is also a stockbroker, said the stakes were high, as western governments and foreign financiers watch to see whether Nairobi co-operates with the court, so they can base aid and investment decisions on Kenya’s appetite for justice. “The worst outcome for Kenya would be to have a president whose first foreign trip as a new leader is to The Hague,” he said. “It would have great and dire economic consequences, and is conscionable only to those people who do not comprehend those consequences, and those who cannot think outside of their tribal cocoon.”