Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Great Kenyan Politicians Wanted

Barack_4_webIt's a national holiday today in Kenya. There were fireworks in Nairobi last night and I hear that Kisumu has become one big carnival. Hawkers are walking lanes of ever-jammed Nairobi traffic, selling Obama '08 bumper stickers, campaign signs, and t-shirts with pictures of Barack Obama and "Made in Kenya" written below.

Obama's warm reception across the country was not always so widespread. During a 2006 speech at the University of Nairobi, he talked about the nearly ubiquitous corruption among public officials in Kenya. He also criticized the government for a weak anti-terror policy, and politics shaped by negative ethnicity. Those comments ticked off some of the political elite and their supporters.

The government's spokesman, Alfred Mutua, issued a statement a couple of days after Obama's speech saying that Obama was "poorly informed". I wasn't living in Kenya back then, but people here tell me that one national newspaper (which is typically government-supporting and Kikuyu-leaning) was full of criticism of Obama. Some writers said he was only pulling a JFK-style "back to the roots" political trip; the Senator from Illinois was certainly not Kenyan.

Now President-elect, Obama is all Kenyan, as far as most people here are concerned. The Kenyan papers are full of praise for him and speculation about what he might be able to do for this country. When I talked with people a couple of months ago for a Man On the Street story, Nairobians seemed pretty realistic. No one thought that an Obama presidency would mean great change for Kenya. Some people hoped that Kenya's tourist industry might benefit. They were proud that a man with Kenyan heritage was going so far in such an important political race, but they didn't think that U.S. aid dollars to Kenya would suddenly increase.

Aid dollars aside, I think there might be another way that coming together over Obama might benefit Kenya.

It was less than a year ago that Kenya surprised the world with a largely undemocratic and violent election. Kenyan politicians used the negative ethnicity that Obama talked about in 2006 to garner votes and spur protest.

If this country can rally behind a politician with Luo heritage, not because he is Luo but because he seems to be a good leader, a man who communicates ideas in a clear way, a person apparently guided by strong principles, maybe the ethnic drive behind Kenyan politics will ease a bit.

Obama was born to a Kenyan father and a white American mother. He spent his early childhood in Indonesia. His middle name is Hussein. Kenyans can see that voters in the United States, a country alternately lauded and criticized for equality or xenophobia, have cast their ballots for such a person.

Maybe that will give Kenyan voters the courage to rally behind another Kenyan politician. Maybe someone will emerge who has a bright mind, strong principles and great leadership skills. Maybe that politician will run in a Kenyan election. And maybe he or she will win on the merit of their political vision and skill, not their ethnicity.