9 February 2013

Kenya: A Watchful World - the Obama Factor

The 44th President of the United States is an authority on elections and oratory. He has handily won two classic presidential contests (2008 and 2012) and has since 2004 delivered a series of what are clearly the American political speeches of the 21st Century thus far.

On Tuesday this week, President Barack Obama made an extraordinary gesture full of far-reaching implications - he addressed a YouTube video message to the people of Kenya on the occasion of their forthcoming 11th General Election.

All of Kenya sat up and paid maximum attention, including reading between the lines and divining subtle signals of a political, diplomatic, international peace and security nature.

Though he botched his Kiswahili greetings, saluting Kenyans everywhere as "Habari Yako" instead of "Habari Yenu", Obama made a number of powerful advisory points. It was a carefully crafted message, well aware of Kenya's multiple presidential candidates, party loyalties and deep divides.

The oratory and sense of occasion were much in evidence: "You can show the world you are not just a member of a tribe or ethnic group but citizens of a great and proud nation. I cannot imagine a better way to mark the 50th anniversary of Kenya's Independence".

Whether Prime Minister Raila Odinga or Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta wins the presidential race, either and his supporters will claim Obama's remarks as significantly prefatory to their victory.

Obama's message, touching as it did on the two scheduled apex political events of 2013 in Kenya, the polls and the Golden Jubilee of Independence, means all things to all sides of the Kenyan political divide. Indeed, the Jubilee Coalition presidential pair of Uhuru and William Ruto were among the first politicians to salute the Obama message, clearly relieved that it neither expressed a political preference nor deplored their status as crimes-against-humanity suspects with cases to answer at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

All Obama said was that if the elections are credible, "if the elections were credible, "you will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the United States of America".

And Obama's message was unique - he has not dispensed such country and event-specific good advice to any other nation on his presidential watch so far. It was a message to the people of the land of his forefathers, a country from which he is only one generation removed.

But the most significant aspect of the message to Kenya is the impression that, this time, the world is really watching, is all eyes and ears, monitoring every step of the way towards Kenya's next presidential polls, the first since the disputed results of the 2007 poll that led straightaway to the post-election violence in which 1,300 died, 650,000 were displaced and the economy almost went into a tailspin, falling from an impressive 7% growth to below 4%.

Kenyans have held a national electoral event after the trauma of the PEV, the National Referendum on the new Constitution in August 2010, which went off without a hitch and to world-class standards rarely witnessed in Africa.

But a national plebiscite, with its starkly simple Black and White, Yes and No choice, is a much less complex affair than the forthcoming biggest and most complicated General Election of them all, an event that is likely to generate all manner of disputes and counter-claims.

As for dispute resolution, Obama advised Kenyans, "Kenya must reject intimidation and violence, and allow a free and fair vote. Kenyans must resolve disputes in the courts, not in the streets".

The kind of scrutiny that the Obama Administration is bringing to bear on the Kenyan General Election is unprecedented and the top members of the political class and their strategists, whether outgoing or incoming, educated in America or not, will be forgiven for feeling more self-conscious than usual.

For millions of Kenyans, particularly prospective voters in the hotspots of 2007, this is no bad thing. In fact, the message should also have been broadcast on radio in its entirety, given the fact that the vast majority of Kenyans outside the ruling and middle classes and the far-flung Diaspora are not users of YouTube, but they do listen to FM radio keenly and broadcasting has a 24/7 cycle inside Kenya, including in Kiswahili and a large variety of the 42 vernacular languages and their dialects.

The US President's gesture places Kenya very high up on the list of his second-term foreign policy priorities. And it will almost certainly be followed by another key message in the aftermath of the 11th General Election.

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