Kenya is a close ally of Israel and the swearing-in of reelected President Uhuru Kenyatta is a “good reason to go to Africa,” a senior diplomatic official said Monday, explaining why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly for a day to Nairobi on Tuesday.
Netanyahu’s decision to go to the ceremony has raised some eyebrows, since the August results were hotly contested by main opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who boycotted a Supreme Court mandated re-vote in October. The entire election process has been marred by violence.
The official said that Netanyahu’s visit is not only about the inauguration, but that bilateral meetings with other African heads of state have been set up, including with the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
Because of security concerns, Netanyahu is not expected to take part in the main inauguration ceremony to be held at the 60,000-seat Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi.
Rather, after landing in the morning and being received in an official ceremony, Netanyahu is scheduled to take part in an event at the Presidential palace, where he will have a joint meeting with some 10 African leaders – including the presidents of Togo, Namibia and Botswana, the prime minister of Ethiopia and the vice president of Nigeria – followed by the bilateral discussions. He is scheduled to be on the ground for just a few hours and will fly back to Israel on Tuesday evening.
Speaking about the visit at the Likud faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu referred to Kenyatta as “my friend.” Pointing out that this will be his third visit to Africa in 18 months
, Netanyahu said: “This tells you about the importance that we in Israel attribute to Africa, and no less importantly, the importance Africa places on strengthening ties with Israel.”
Diplomatic officials deflected criticism that Netanyahu is attending the ceremony even though it was contested and marred by violence, saying that the international community accepted the Supreme Court’s authorization of the second election results, which Kenyatta won by a margin of some 98%. Less than 40% of the electorate took part in that vote, however.
“This is a way of building strong relations with Africa, and Kenya is a major player in East Africa,” one western diplomatic official said of Netanyahu’s visit. He said that the international community largely accepted the results of the elections out of a realization that “if it is not Kenyatta, it will be chaos.”
Kenyatta, who has been president since 2013, defeated former prime minister Odinga in the elections in August, by some eight percentage points. Odinga did not accept the results, alleging that they had been hacked, and challenged them in court.
In early September the Kenyan Supreme Court acknowledged irregularities, and, in a surprise move, nullified the results, ordering new elections, which were held in October.
Odinga, however, boycotted those elections, saying there was no guarantee that those results would also not be tampered with. Without Odinga’s participation, Kenyatta won a landslide victory, which was validated earlier this month by the Supreme Court. That decision was not recognized by Odinga, and he is expected to hold a parallel “swearing-in” ceremony on Tuesday in protest.
Netanyahu has met twice with Kenyatta over the last two years, once in Nairobi, and once in Jerusalem.
Kenya’s media is reporting that some 13 heads of state will attend the swearing-in ceremony, as well as lower-level representatives from numerous other countries, including the US, Britain and China.
Both Kenyatta and Odinga are considered friends of Israel. Kenyatta visited Israel in 2016, the first Kenyan president to do so since Daniel Moi in 1994.
During that visit, Netanyahu characterized the relationship between the two countries – that goes back over 50 years – as “remarkable.”
Netanyahu visited Kenyatta in Nairobi a few months later on the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Africa in some 30 years.
Standing next to Netanyahu in Nairobi, Kenyatta said it would be “foolhardy” for Africa not to cooperate closely with Israel, adding that this would be “like an ostrich burying its head.”
Odinga, too, has a relationship with Israel, having visited the country a number of times, the last time in May when he delivered a lecture at the Hebrew University and also visited the Western Wall. Pictures of him in a kippa and holding a Bible at the Wall were circulated widely on social media.