High hopes that Obama’s visit leaves more than words
The crowd was always going to be onside, but US President Barack Obama was in typically inspirational form when he visited Kenya this weekend, the country where his father was born.
Addressing a crowd of thousands – and millions more on television and radio – Obama raised a cheer by declaring himself “proud to be the first Kenyan-American president of the United States”.
But he also addressed some of the fundamental problems in Kenyan society, raising hopes that his words might be heard by Kenya’s rulers as much as its people, encouraging much-needed change in the country.
Obama spoke repeatedly throughout the weekend about the corruption that blights every aspect of life in Kenya, describing it as possibly “the biggest impediment” to Kenyan growth.
Veteran anti-corruption activist John Githongo said Obama, “got it totally right,” pointing out that Kenya is sliding down Transparency International’s annual corruption index, “for the first time since the 1990s”.
“We’re below Nigeria now,” he said of the 2014 survey that placed Kenya 145th out of 174, with Nigeria at 136, Kenya’s position the previous year.
While welcoming Obama’s outspokenness on the corrosive effects of corruption, Githongo said he could have done more.
“Obama talked about all the right issues but he let the government off lightly,” said Githongo.
The ethnic divisions at the heart of Kenyan politics came to the fore after the 2007 elections when politically-motivated tribal violence left over 1,000 people dead.
“A politics that’s based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart,” Obama said.
Sitting nearby were President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, both of whom were indicted for crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the post-election violence of 2007-08.
The case against Kenyatta has been suspended while Ruto’s continues.
“Obama could have been stronger on corruption, on tribalism,” said Githongo.
Nor did Obama speak strongly enough on civil society and media freedoms, Githongo said.
“There is a very strong feeling that media and civil society are currently under siege,” he said.
Shortly before Obama arrived in Kenya, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report warning of a “deteriorating climate” for press freedom in Kenya.
Women’s rights occupied a long stretch of Obama’s speech on Sunday.
“Treating women as second class citizens is a bad tradition,” he said, adding that to ignore half a country’s population is “stupid”.
Kenyan activists welcomed the focus on gender equality, including the mention of endemic wife-beating and the practice of female genital mutilation.
“It is my hope that his speech will encourage our policymakers to implement very progressive policies,” said Yvette Kathurima, of women’s rights group FEMNET.
“As a country we must embrace women’s equal leadership and participation.”
Boniface Mwangi, a prominent Kenyan social activist who also met with Obama, agreed that it is Kenya’s leaders who most need to listen to Obama’s messages.
“Kenyans are very happy with Obama’s strong statements against corruption and we hope our president will now take the war against graft seriously,” said Mwangi, who is well known for his colourful protests that have included delivering pigs and coffins to Kenya’s parliament.
“Obama’s visit has energised the Kenyan youth to demand better from their leaders,” he said.
Obama’s visit and his tough-love messages on corruption, tribalism and sexism have raised hopes that Kenya may see change, rather than a continuation of business as usual.
But Kenyans are realistic about their leaders and their government, and so the hopes of change are frail.
The day after Obama left for neighbouring Ethiopia on the second leg of his Africa tour, a cartoon in the Daily Nation newspaper depicted a Kenyan civil servant, feet on his desk, declaring that “with Obama gone we got no one to impress”.