Obama: I speak what I think is true and say it best

Friday September 1 2006

As he wound up his official schedule after a high-profile "homecoming", the US Senator with Kenyan roots Barack Obama granted an exclusive interview to Nation managing editor (Special Projects) MACHARIA GAITHO and NTV news anchor JULIE GICHURU. Excerpts:

NATION: You have been to Kenya in the past as a private citizen. Now you are a US senator and on official visits. There must be a big difference? 

OBAMA: Oh yes, there is a big difference. As I said in my speech at the University of Nairobi, the first time I came here I was just about to go into law school. I had just a few hundred dollars to my name. My sister picked me up at the airport in her little VW beetle. It kept on breaking down every two days and we had to go to the jua kali mechanic. I slept on her couch.

But it was a wonderful time in many ways because it is more fun travelling that way. You can walk through the city and talk to people and there are no expectations. This time it has been a little more hectic.

From the things you have been saying and the speech , one gets the sense that you are trying to be very diplomatic, very official. What interests me is that you are an opposition Senator and yet we hear you sometimes saying that you are speaking for the US government. Isn't that a contradiction? 

Senator Obama: 'People have been so warm and

Senator Obama: 'People have been so warm and gracious and I have had a wonderful time'
I am never actually speaking for the US government. I think I can speak for my constituency in Illinois, and I think I have a fairly good sense of what's going on in the minds of the US government. There are times I disagree deeply with the Bush administration. At other times the Bush administration position is probably bipartisan, which both Democrats and Republicans share. If it comes to a discussion about the war in Iraq, I am going to have differences of opinion with the US president. If it comes to the need to battle terrorism, then we may have similar views. So, certainly I am not the official spokesperson for the US government, that's for the US ambassador. But I am here in an official capacity in that I'm a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee and I have some impact on how the debates move forward. 

As you prepared to travel to Kenya you were obviously conscious of two things. One was about being drawn into local politics. The other was the high expectations of what you could do for Kenya now that you are a senator. How did you handle both?

One of the things we try to do is meet with all parties. I met President Kibaki, I met Uhuru Kenyatta, I was with Raila Odinga. We met the Government, met the opposition and met other groups such as human rights activists. What I try to do is give a consistent message on what I think US-Kenya relations should be. But not to suggest somehow that I think one party is better than the other. That’s for the Kenyan people to decide.

In terms of expectations, I’ve to explain very early on that am just one senator out of a hundred senators. Ultimately decisions about programmes, projects, are made in collaboration, by persons other than myself. I don’t have a chequebook where I can go and write a cheque directly for the US Treasury.

I think people have ended up appreciating that I'm here to better understand what's been happening in Kenya, to try to create better links, but ultimately Kenya is going to have to do most of the hard work itself in terms of developing the country. 

Your speech at the university was very hard on issues of governance and corruption. Did you consider at some point that some people in authority, in government, might take it badly?

Sometimes things I say in America, people in government take them badly. So my general attitude is if I speak what I think is the truth and I say it best and honestly, I let the chips fall where they may. And that's what works for me. 

You met with President Kibaki. What was your impression of the man? 

You know, Kibaki actually knew my father. My father was sort of blacklisted for quite some time for speaking out against the Government. President Kibaki, who was Finance minister at the time, hired him after he'd been in the wilderness for seven years. My father, at around the time he died was working as a senior economist at the Finance ministry. 

President Kibaki, I think is a decent person and he wants to do the right things. But sometimes in an environment where there's a lot of pressure – from constituents, from ethnic bases – maybe you forget what exactly you were trying to do in the first place, which is something all of us in politics have to contend with.

You talked in your speech about the corruption in Chicago politics, which is quite legendary. Have you as a politician had to compromise on your principles?

I haven't. Some of what happened happened in the past and it's not the same in Chicago as it used to be. In some way I was very fortunate in that when I ran I didn't have support from what you can call the Democratic Party machine, I didn’t have a lot of institutional support. I basically ran an independent campaign, and for whatever reason in some way it caught fire and I was able to win.

You had some lucky breaks? 

That's my point that I had some lucky breaks and that allowed me to get elected without making the same compromises that some people otherwise have to make.

Your accent. You don’t sound as American as most Americans. When you talk you sound almost Kenyan. Is that genetic or what considering where you were brought up? 

I think when I'm in Kenya I get to speak a little more– I try to fight it because I don’t want to sound like I'm putting it on. But it's true that wherever you go... when you are in Russia and you hear Russians speaking you start taking on the intonation of the place; when you are in Latin America, you start sounding a bit more Latin. So, when I'm in Chicago I sound like a Chicagoan.

One of the key themes in your speech was corruption. How as a nation do we push our leaders toward being more accountable?

Ultimately it's going to come from the ground up not from the top down. I think what you have to do is make sure that you are educating people, mobilising people, on the impact of corruption on daily life; so it's clear that when contracts are required to skim off the top to help some political leader, that discourages investment which means less jobs in Kenya. There's got to be a very systematic organising at the grassroots level in order for politicians to ultimately respond to those pressures.

You spoke about robust civil society. We did have one but unfortunately most of those active during the Kanu era are now in government and we have less voices speaking out for the ordinary Kenyan. Is there a way the US can push, help us enhance our civil society?

Ultimately Kenyans will have to step up to the plate. The US can encourage; I can come and make a speech, but ultimately in a few days I'm gone. People will have to take the risks, get involved and become more vocal. And hold leadership accountable because one of the dangers is that those who start out idealistic get pulled into the system and if you don’t have a means of either holding them accountable or generating new leadership, you get into trouble. You always need to make sure there is a base of people who are going to keep the process moving forward regardless of what happens politically. The only way to have a strong grassroots movement is if it cuts across the different communities. If everyone is staying in their own communities it's easier for the government to play one group against another. And that's true not just in Kenya but also in the US.

In 2002, we saw people of all communities coming together. It was supposed to be time of change but it hasn’t quite happened the way people thought it would. Our politicians, both opposition and government, play this game of ethnic politics. And the people let them. How do we begin as a society to say 'I'm not going to put my community first, I'm going to put the person who will do the job best'? Is it just education? 

It’s educating people on the issue. There is the perception that if there's ethnic politics the big man in the tribe is going to take care of you. But if you look at what actually happens, only a handful of people in your ethnic group are taken care of. The rest of the people, they are in the 56 per cent of the country living below the poverty line. So why commit yourself to that kind of politics? Why not look at the agenda and platform and find out what they will do for the 56 per cent who need help the most, who are committed to an anti-corruption agenda, who are moving to try improve the judiciary and the police and criminal justice system? If the focus is on issues and not the ethnicity, not the personality, then you can actually hold people accountable for following through on their promises. That’s got to come, again, from the bottom up, although what we do need is the leadership willing to fulfil that role and give voice to it. Part of the reason I went to give that speech at the university is the hope that the next generation is not tied too strongly to these old perceptions.

I can say that from the perspective of the United States, they look at Kenya and all they see is Kenyan. They don’t pay attention to Luo and Kamba and Kikuyu and Maasai and so on. If people start taking a global perspective, they will begin to realise that Kenya can't afford to be divided like this. The world is too competitive. Every single person in the country has to be able to fulfil their potential. And this includes women. An entire segment of the population is continuing to suffer sexual violence and abuse is not given the same opportunities as men. The single biggest indicator of whether a country develops or not is how well it treats and educates its women. If women are educated and they have equal opportunities, one half of the country suddenly is able to contribute in ways they haven’t been able to before.

Speaking of opportunities, the AGOA initiative is seen as [former President Bill] Clinton's gift to Africa. But we didn't quite exploit it. We did do a bit on textile exports to the US but lost out on a lot of other opportunities. Is there anybody who is thinking of starting another initiative for Africa? Have you thought about it? Do we have to wait for a Democrat to come to office to see that happen ?

I think people are willing to be partners with Kenya and with Africa. One of the things I have to underscore is how competitive things are. Kenya might be competitive with Europe when it comes to horticulture, for example. But when it comes to grains, textiles, other staples and basic commodities, its very hard for Kenya to compete against China or some of the other Asian countries right now. They are just more competitive producers. No matter the terms of trade, if a country doesn’t have a good education system, is under-educated, if it doesn’t have a transparency in government and good solid leadership, the infrastructure, then it isn’t going to be able to compete. We can come up with a whole bunch of good trade arrangements, like AGOA, but the fact is if there were no tariffs whatsoever and every trade barrier was knocked down right now, Kenyan textile couldn't compete with textiles from Asia. They, Asians, would benefit from the reduction in tariffs, not Kenya. So we have to make sure that Kenya is as competitive as possible. That’s the only way over the long term it's going be able to develop.

You did say earlier that you are not here to speak for the US government. But there has been speculation that you've been sent here to improve US-Africa relationships for the Bush administration; that they are threatened that China has been here aggressively pursuing strong ties with Africa. How would you respond to that?

My relationship with the Bush administration isn’t very good, so I promise you the Bush administration wouldn't send me anywhere. If you look at the record, quotes in the newspapers over the last two years, I've probably been one of the strongest critics of the Bush administration. 

There may be people they want to send out to improve US relations with the US, but it certainly won't be me.

Has this trip lived up to expectations?

It has exceeded them. People have been so warm and gracious and I’ve had a wonderful time. It's been very educational, it's been wonderful to bring my family – and my daughters in particular who haven't been to the country before – and I think they've gained an appreciation of what a wonderful place Kenya is, what a wonderful place Africa is. Its been a terrific trip.