Obama's Kenya: A Potential Political Minefield

Of all the countries around the world, nowhere was Barack Obama’s election celebrated more enthusiastically than Kenya, the birthplace of the president’s father. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared a public holiday to mark this momentous event, in which “our son” was becoming the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that a serious diplomatic row is erupting between the Kenyan government and the Obama administration, which on October 26 announced that it was revoking the visa of a top Kenyan official because of his role in blocking reforms in the country. More than a dozen officials have been threatened with a similar fate, and Nairobi has reacted by calling the moves an “unacceptable” insult to its national dignity. As much as I admire President Obama, and share his broad aims for Africa, I believe the approach his administration is taking is wrong.

The U.S. announcement, by Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, stemmed from Washington’s displeasure over Kenya’s slow progress in fighting corruption and reforming the constitution as well as the judiciary, police force and other government agencies. U.S. officials are also concerned that Nairobi is dragging its feet in dealing with perpetrators of the violence that wracked Kenya following its December 2007 election.

As a Kenyan, I applaud the Obama administration’s special attention to my country, especially its push for a faster pace of much-needed reforms. But the focus should be on overhauling institutions, not targeting individuals. The personalized diplomacy undertaken by Washington could put the president on a slippery slope that undercuts his influence in Kenya and in Africa more broadly, diminishing the enormous goodwill generated by his electoral victory.

It is welcome, of course, that Obama is not treating Africa with kid gloves. For all the excitement in Africa about him, and the sense of empowerment and pride that Africans feel over the achievements of one of their “own,” the president has made it clear in his speeches and pronouncements by Secretary of State Clinton that America will solidify partnerships with Africans based on governments’ record of governance. Obama’s visit to Ghana, a country with a solid record of recent reforms, was meant in part to signal the priority that the administration will place on fighting corruption.

In Kenya, the Obama administration has been emphatic in its dealings with the coalition government led by President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga that the United States expects change—and fast. The Kenyan masses want change too, and see Obama as supporting their desired course. Kenyans are particularly upset by what is seen as laxity in fighting corruption and reforming the current constitution that concentrates power on the executive and consequently dilutes voice.

But by punishing individuals for derailing reforms, the message is that the problem is with the individuals themselves and not the much deeper issue of institutions. The slow pace of dealing with corruption is for example rooted in a weak judiciary while the post-election violence was to a large extent weak electoral institutions and dysfunctional security forces. The assumption that punishing individuals will translate into reforms is misguided; there is not an iota of evidence that similar steps taken in previous cases, in other countries, has expedited the cause of reform.

Moreover, singling out individuals for not being supportive of reforms is contradictory to the American legal principle of due process. President Obama himself faces challenges in Congress in enacting reforms; how would Americans feel if Kenya were to revoke visas for certain senators for refusing to support health care reform?

Another problem posed by the current U.S. approach is that targeting individuals and not institutions will be seen as targeting communities. Unfortunately, in Kenya and other African countries, when individuals are targeted—regardless of the merit—it is often perceived as being aimed at an ethnic group. Obama’s name may be dragged into Kenya’s murky ethnic politics; this will be neither pretty nor helpful to the reform cause that the president champions.

A better approach for the United States would be to support reforms in the Judiciary and especially the on-going constitutional review process and police reforms. In light of the recent post-election violence, special focus should be on reforming and capacitating the institution responsible for organizing elections so as to minimize the possibility of election fraud in the 2012 elections. If such reforms were to be enacted and embraced by the Kenyan government and the nation's society, then the country may be able to look forward to a much more successful transition of power than last time, and a much brighter future.