14 February 2013

Kenya: Between the Lines of Obama's Message to Kenyans


Obama's message to Kenyans centred on the upcoming elections was received well by politicians on the campaign trail. But what many seem to have missed is the fact that the message was loaded with conditional political promises that isolated a particular candidate

Kenyans were pleasantly surprised that their most celebrated kinsman the President of the United States Barack Obama finally broke the silence on his take on the coming elections in Kenya. In a carefully worded two-and-half-minute Youtube address, the President outlined that the US does not endorse any candidates and respects the will of the people of Kenya in choosing their leaders during the coming polls on March 4. In his characteristic diplomatic yet subtle forceful style he reiterated the United States Government's commitment to fostering a strong alliance with Kenya and called on Kenyans to be peaceful and cognizant of the rule of law during the elections. Superficially, the message seemed obvious, direct and to the point.

Like everyone else I was initially elated but unlike most and having worked within his presidential campaign I know to read between the lines of every word this master politician and skilful diplomat says. The genius of President Obama is his ability to communicate his vision, thoughts and intentions without sounding threatening. He is also a leader who is acutely aware of the power and timing of his words and presence. On this occasion I questioned whether his motive was to exhort Kenyans, whether he was using the bully pulpit to put questionable presidential candidates on notice or whether he was using his foreign policy philosophy of "soft power" to stave off a potentially volatile election reminiscent of the bungled 2007 election. Perhaps, he was going on record to counter the common misconception that he has a bias for Prime Minister Raila Odinga's CORD alliance because of their common ethnic background.

What folks seemed to have missed is that the message was loaded with conditional political promises and overtures that isolated a particular candidature without giving any endorsements and conversely without making any veiled threats. The saying goes that an accused is innocent until proven otherwise hence one cannot make judgements. The saying also goes that the guilty are afraid hence one can only make the observation that the message may have been directed to those who quickly responded. In a hastily convened press conference shortly after the video message was released, the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidates gave a rejoinder to President Obama's message thanking him for reiterating his neutrality. As though they had the authority to question it all along.

Now the million dollar question is whether Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Honourable William Ruto were responding out of trepidation of being put on notice as unfit leaders given their ICC woes or out of overconfidence of a decisive election victory because of what political pundit Mutahi Ngunyi called the "Tyranny of Numbers"? Was President Obama speaking as a big brother intent on saving Kenyans from themselves and protecting them from The Hague bound duo who have successfully tied their personal criminal fate to the destiny of Kenya or in concession to an obvious triumph by the Jubilee Alliance in which case the world will be forced to deal with the intrigue of an Uhuru/Ruto presidency? Your guess is as good as mine but the President of the United States does not take two and half minutes out of the worlds pressing problems exactly a month to the election unless it is a priority. Kenya's fate lies in the answer to this question and while it is still a mystery, the answer will be determined at the ballot box this Election Day.

The message that was resoundingly clear in President Obama's White House address to the people of Kenya was that we must conduct these coming elections peacefully and with civility. Disputes in such a contentious election are inevitable but how we resolve them will determine whether we have learnt from the lessons of our past and who we will be into posterity. There is a broad recognition that this being the first election under a new constitutional dispensation is crucial. Evidently, March 4 will be possibly one of the most important days for Kenya. It will either go in history as a day when we rose to the occasion and embarked on a new era of prosperity, the rule of law and ethnic tolerance or a day when we squandered our future. On Election Day as President Obama succinctly puts it, vote not just as a member of a tribe, but as a citizen of great and proud nation.

Nathan Wangusi is a former organizer on the Obama campaign and a PhD Candidate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

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