Recently, I have been pondering this very question, and my conclusions have been rather disturbing.
Let me begin by congratulating Mr Barack Obama on his election as the next President of the United States. His rise to the pinnacle of American, and by extension, global politics, is at the very least inspiring. I shall not spend time here detailing what numerous others have said, about how he has overcome historical hurdles, generations of racial discrimination and resource constraints to become the first Black President of the United States. There appears little doubt even after the election that he appears to have what it takes to lead America. But today I would like to argue along a different tack.
I shall begin by positing that Mr Obama is the kind of leader we need in Kenya as well. And I’m not saying this merely because he is Kenyan. I say this because of his “break from the past” brand of politics, his grasp of issues, and his ability to inspire others to believe in his vision for change. If there is anything Kenya needs, it is a break from a far from glorious past. This post pre-supposes that such is the case, and I will not be arguing any further about whether or not Mr Obama is a suitable candidate for the President of this nation.
So if we agree that this nation needs a leader in Barack Obama’s mould, one would hope that he would actually win in Kenya. But would he actually win?
I cast my mind back to the speech Mr Obama made in 2006 at the University of Nairobi. That speech showed Mr Obama to have a remarkable grasp of the problems bedevilling Kenya’s progress towards a vibrant and stable economy, and good governance. That same speech however, was vilified by a section of Government, who probably felt that the speech pointed fingers at their own leadership. Leading the pack was the indefatigable Dr Alfred Mutua, a man who at the height of post-election violence gave press conferences saying there were “scattered incidents” of unrest. Mr Mutua took out several Advertiser’s Announcements in local dailies in which he was at pains to explain exactly why Mr Obama’s speech was wrong in so many ways, as well as giving an official communication on the speech. One of the arguments he put forward was that “Senator Obama also trivialized the harmony and peaceful co-existence that exists between different ethnic groups and races that live in this country, and chose to magnify tribalism as a major problem in this country.” It is to be hoped that the events of January 2008 made it clear to Dr Mutua that tribalism is indeed a major problem in this country.
Next in the queue was Mr Joe Wanjui. In his speech, Mr Obama had pointed out that in the early 1960s, Kenya’s Gross National Product was not very different from that of South Korea’s. In the intervening period, however South Korea has grown to have an economy 40 times the size of Kenya’s. Mr Obama’s speech tries to examine why this disparity exists. Mr Wanjui’s argument was that the two economies should not be compared from 1960, but from 1906.
The then about-to-be ambassador to the United States, Mr Peter N.R.O Ogego also felt it necessary to inform Mr Obama that “We as Kenyans, therefore, take great exception to being lectured by you sir on the merits and demerits of corruption or even what to do about it…” That corruption has merits in and of itself is surprising to me.
Based on this, I would not put it past the Establishment in this country to paint Obama not as a great leader, not as a Kenyan, who has risen from circumstances of considerable lack, to the pinnacle of American politics, not as a person whose brand of leadership is sorely needed in this country, but rather as a man whose father was born in Siaya. The issue would cease to be what Mr Obama can or cannot do for this country and would begin to be where he is from. From this point the Establishment would then insidiously hammer the point that he has roots in the Western part of this country.
But the Establishment is something we must live with. It is something we must tolerate. What we must subject to objective scrutiny, though, is what our response (as the voting public) to such drivel and electioneering would be. The Establishment’s line of attack is based on politics. Your response, dear reader, should be based on principle. I have spoken with several people about whether they would mind if Barack Obama were to be Kenya’s President. One went so far as to say: “In the US it’s fine; here, no.” I was amazed. Let me put it another way: if Mr Obama were currently running against President Kibaki for the presidency of the United States, this nation would most likely be a divided one as we speak. Or wouldn’t it?
At this point I began to wonder whether the mass support Kenyans accorded Mr Obama (myself included) was based entirely on the facts of his campaign, and what he had to offer Americans, or whether it was actually based on the fact that he has Kenyan roots. Even allowing for natural allegiances, perhaps we supported Mr Obama simply because we know that we can identify him as having had a Kenyan father. Pitted against Mr McCain, then, Mr Obama appears to we Kenyans to be a much more palatable choice. Is it true that many of us would be hard-pressed to list three things that Mr Obama promised to do for America? Could it be that our support for Mr Obama was/is really a broader form of the ethnic troubles that bedevilled our nation earlier this year?