The Star (Nairobi)

22 July 2010

Kenya: Obama Told U.S. Envoy to Back Draft

Nairobi — President Barack Obama instructed his ambassador Michael Ranneberger to support the referendum process so that the proposed constitution is passed on August 4.

Obama wants the new constitution passed because it is one of the key reforms under the Agenda Four package that the coalition government agreed to implement when it came to power. Other key reforms were land reform, the creation of a new electoral commission, the establishment of new electoral boundaries and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission.

"What I have been saying has been sanctioned by President Obama," said Ranneberger told the Star yesterday on the phone.

Obama has been consistent in his push for a new constitution. In June he dispatched Vice-President Joe Biden to Nairobi to encourage President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to soldier on with the Yes campaigns.

Biden told Kibaki and Raila at State House in Nairobi that Obama had promised to revisit his father's homeland if Kenya passes the proposed constitution. The American President last visited Kenya and his grandmother in Kogelo village as senator for Illinois in 2006.

Yesterday Ranneberger said his president believed that the new constitution would unlock resources for Kenya and lift the country to a higher level.

Obama's involvement in the push for a new constitution has however drawn criticism from three pro-life US senators and local politicians opposed to the proposed constitution.

Ranneberger has been fighting off claims by the No team that he has taken sides in the raging referendum Higher Education minister William Ruto, who is leading the 'Red' team, has on several occasions accused the envoy of crossing the line of what is acceptable for foreign diplomats.

"There is no difference in what the Obama presidency is dangling to Kenyans in order to pass a new constitution to the dishing of cash handouts to voters during election time by politicians," said Ruto in Mombasa at a rally at the weekend.

Ruto wondered why Obama said he will only visit Kenya if a new constitution is passed.

"President Obama does not need a new constitution to visit his grandmother," he said.

But Ranneberger has defended his boss and himself insisting that was operating within his diplomatic orbit, more so because the USA is a friend of Kenya and is pro-reform.

"I cannot say something that has not been sanctioned by my government.

The remarks are President Obama's directive on what direction Kenya should take at this singular moment of change," he said.

"I'm also not worried about one or two people who are attacking me," Ranneberger said yesterday at his residence when he briefly addressed the media after a ceremony to swear in 36 American Peace Corps volunteers.

"President Obama believes this is a singular moment for Kenyans to bring about better governance," he said.

Ranneberger asked the 36 not to shy away from discussing issues related to democracy, governance and developmental while in Kenya.

The volunteers have been training in Kenya for the last one year in small micro enterprise and health and have learned Swahili, and Luhya dialects including Maragoli, Bukusu, Banyala, Tachoni, Luo, and Ameru.

Ranneberger refused to state openly whether he supported the proposed constitution and asked Kenyans to campaign peacefully, avoid hate speech and remain united after the referendum.

He however said that the constitution will bring change to the country and added that Kenya and the USA's relationship will remain intact regardless of the referendum outcome.

He told the 36 Peace Corps that they were likely to meet young Kenyans in the course of their work.

"These are the people who will bring change in Kenya as President Obama said when he visited Kenya in 2006 as a senator," Ranneberger said.

He said, Kenya's trajectory should be 90 degrees upwards but it has always been at 35 to 45 degrees because of impunity and corruption.

'You should know that the stakes are extremely high whichever way the outcome of the referendum will be," Ranneberger told the Peace Corps He asked them to participate in the current debate in Kenya.

President JF Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1961 and to date it has trained 6,000 Kenyans in small business management, maths, science, health and ICT.

Peace Corps Volunteers country director, Steven Wisecarver, said he wants the volunteers for Kenya increased to 150 per intake.

Researcher Tom Wolfe, a doyen Peace Corps Volunteer, asked the 36 to be humble as they learned about Kenyan society is.

"While the role of Ranneberger has been questioned in politics, nobody has criticised the American Peace Corps role in Kenya," Wolfe said.

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