Obama: Kenya’s new law a boon

Saturday August 21 2010

File | AFP US President Barack Obama signing a document in office.  He has sent  a letter to Kenyan leaders.

File | AFP US President Barack Obama signing a document in office. He has sent a letter to Kenyan leaders.  

By MURITHI MUTIGA [email protected] and MUGUMO MUNENE [email protected]

President Obama has paid glowing tribute to Kenyans for endorsing the new constitution in a letter to President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga which could signal a strengthening of the relationship between the two countries.

The American President described the successful referendum as “a proud moment in Kenya’s history” and said he hoped it would help strengthen democratic institutions and boost reconciliation efforts.

He urged the President and Prime Minister to work together in the process of implementation, saying the US would be a “committed friend and partner in this effort”.

President Obama’s letter is the latest sign that the relationship between Kenya and major Western powers, which was tense following the botched 2007 General Election, could be about to improve significantly.

The August 4 referendum, which saw voters overwhelmingly endorse the new constitution, earned Kenya positive headlines around the world.

The constitution was seen as the most crucial item in the reform agenda crafted in 2008 to attempt to halt the nation’s cyclical bouts of ethnic fighting.

In June, US Vice-President Joe Biden said a new constitution would lead to a more stable Kenya which would, in turn, make it easier for the country to benefit from significant US grants and investments.

One of the programmes Kenya is expected to be eligible for is the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA).

The account is an American-sponsored bilateral fund which offers support to countries that are judged on a number of indicators including efforts to tackle corruption.

In 2008, Tanzania benefited from a $698m (Sh55.8b) award.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation, US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger said the relationship between Kenya and the US would change following the endorsement of the new constitution.

He defended the vigour with which the American government had backed the new law, saying the interests of the US and Kenyans in ensuring stability, tackling negative ethnicity and widespread poverty “absolutely coincide”.

Mr Ranneberger said greater US support would hinge on the effectiveness of the implementation process and added that Mr Biden had not made an explicit promise that Kenya would benefit from such programmes as the MCA.

“We were very clear,” he said. “We were not trying to bribe or tell Kenyans how to vote. All we said is a statement of fact. If you implement this new constitution, it will create greater stability, it will fight corruption and, if you do that, Kenya will be a more attractive place to invest and therefore more American investment might be coming to Kenya. As for the MCA, for example, one of the criteria to get it is that you have to be fighting corruption. So what he said is that if the new constitution is implemented, structures will be put in place that will address some of these criteria for the MCA.”

In his letter to the coalition leaders, President Obama made a similarly strong pitch for effective implementation of the new law.
According to multiple government sources that have seen the letter, President Obama said the success of the review process showed the will of the Kenyan people to implement positive change.

The US President thanked the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) for the way in which it ran “a peaceful and credible referendum”.

Mr Obama, whose father was Kenyan, has had a complicated relationship with the country. He first visited in the late 1980s and described what he saw as a land of contradictions in his biography, Dreams from My Father.

He was struck by the natural beauty of the country but frustrated by the high levels of poverty and pervasive corruption.

In January 2008, as he was running for the Democratic presidential ticket, Mr Obama taped an audio message urging Kenyans to step back from the brink as the nation descended into an orgy of violence following the election.

“Despite irregularities,” he said, “now is not the time to throw (Kenya’s) strong democracy away. Now is a time for President Kibaki, opposition leader Odinga and all of Kenya’s leaders to call for calm, to come together, and to start a political process to address peacefully the controversies that divide them. Now is the time for this terrible violence to end.”

When he was elected in November that year, President Obama became a sharp critic of the grand coalition government. The Kibaki-Odinga partnership at the time appeared weak and both men ran a duelling and confused coalition.

First visit

Mr Obama pointedly chose Ghana as the country of his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and openly criticised Kenya on his visit to Accra.

In private conversations with both Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga, he was vocal on his desire for the two men to advance the reform agenda.

The US-Kenya relationship improved when the two coalition leaders unexpectedly united in backing the draft law produced by the Committee of Experts.

That unity proved crucial in helping the ‘Yes’ campaign defeat a coalition of politicians and elements within the clergy.

Mr Ranneberger said the active US involvement in the reform process was motivated by “friendship”. He dismissed claims that America was trying to influence the course of local politics.

“What we saw in 2008 with the post-election violence is that if young people are not empowered, they will be manipulated by politicians. It’s important to empower young people so that they are not manipulated to avoid a repeat of the kind of crisis that Kenya suffered in 2008. So we have been reaching out to young people."

But Mr Obama’s letter is the most concrete illustration yet of the manner in which the country stands to gain following the ringing endorsement of the new constitution.