Oboma, welcome to Kenya, but be aware

Dear President Obama: Karibu! Welcome! Asante for dropping in on us, the country of your father, before you depart the White House. There are those who called you all manner of names when you visited in 2006. I apologise on their behalf. The idea that you’d go ahead and win a presidential election two years later was unthinkable.

But many all over the world got caught out on that one. Asante sana too, because confirmation of your arrival has caused the most rapid road repair programme in the history of our capital city.

You are visiting the country that has consistently been the USA’s closest diplomatic, political and military ally in the region for half a century. This goes way back to when President JF Kennedy’s “airlift” saw your father and others travel to the US for further education. America’s extraordinary soft power – from Hollywood to KFC to Apple – sets global trends. We are no exception in being influenced by the USA in many ways.

We have taken some blows for it too, as your enemies have picked on us for terrorist attacks. Still, we are a resilient lot. We pride ourselves as exemplifying in East Africa the spirit of enterprise and capitalism that we share with the USA. (As I write, you can be sure there are even some hustlers selling tickets to those who want to shake your hand or share a meal with you.) The USA continues to need a stable, democratic friend in East Africa and its best bet continues to be Kenya.

Still, in this part of the world, new realities are serving to transform the relationship between Kenya and the USA. There is a democratic recession underway across the world. It’s playing out here in our region too. This is partly driven by old partnerships, now renewed.

China is now Kenya’s fastest growing and most significant trading partner. It has transformed our roads, skylines and national debt. Dollar for dollar, China’s impact competes with that of the USA – we see its infrastructure even when we choose to ignore some of the less salubrious accompanying aspects.

The discerning amongst us know that China’s attitudes to corruption and democracy are very different to those expressed in our constitution. Externally, the Chinese tend to be permissive towards the first and opposed to the second. China also offers a governance model that the elite finds seductive. Indeed, it’s no longer politically incorrect to hear regime apologists argue ‘we have too much democracy’. This is nonsense of course. In fact devolving – and thus deepening – our democracy saved Kenya from the crisis of a presidency won back-to-back via the dodgiest means possible.

When you visited in 2006, you spoke on corruption and tribalism. As a former Senator from Illinois you will know something about corruption, since Illinois governors are as likely as not to retire to jail. Your recent remarks on systemic racism in the USA demonstrate how well you understand that nations cannot be at peace within themselves as long as their foundations privilege some citizens on the basis on their genetic origins. Here too, we’re still fighting to overcome these two cancers, even though some argue that economic growth should be where we focus our energies as Kenyans.

You will also know that this battle is not new. In the 1990s, Kenyans, led by a coalition of civil society, the church and media, and supported by sympathetic sections of the international community, agitated for multiparty democracy as a conducive environment to fight against these and other ills. The gains of that era are now being rolled back ever so gently.

We lost the Church as an ally along the way while media and civil society chug along in an increasingly hostile environment replete with extrajudicial methods of sanction, intimidation and elimination. Our allies in the international community sometimes seem to have lost their confidence. This has led to a disconcerting ambivalence amongst Kenyans themselves about values and principles that once seemed so crystal clear.

There are concerns in particular that the so-called war on terror has taken precedence over the democracy and anti-corruption agenda. And yet, corruption in Kenya feeds both domestic and jihadist insecurity in very direct ways. Authoritarian extrajudicial reactions too have served to alienate Muslims and radicalise youth.

Sliding back into a Cold War posture where developing world leaders use the war on terror as an excuse to roll back democratic freedoms will backfire. The struggle against communism was once used as an excuse to keep the historical aberration of apartheid going way longer than simple decency demanded.

As we welcome you to the country your ancestors call home, let not your visit be used to rubber-stamp the most far-reaching reversals in the hard-won freedoms enjoyed by media, civil society and Kenyans in general in the past two decades. Thank you. Enjoy the visit and – once again – thanks for the refurbished roads and freshly planted grass!

This article was first published in the (Kenyan) Star on 24-7-2015

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