Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Obama Did Not Find The Courage To Say

The much awaited visit of US President Barack Obama to Kenya is done and dusted. By nearly all accounts, it was a massive success, showcasing the country as an investment destination and providing Kenyans an opportunity to claim the Kenyan-American leader of the free world as one of their own. However, in the fading afterglow of the trip, we can now begin to evaluate the events of the weekend. Perhaps a good place to start is with his previous visit here.

A leaked confidential US diplomatic cable reporting on a meeting between then opposition leader, Uhuru Kenyatta and the then freshman Senator for Illinois during the latter’s 2006 tour of Kenya, contains this interesting exchange:

“Senator Obama commented that when he returns to Kenya in 10, or five years, he hopes he will not hear the same comments about KANU and its failure to reform.  Kenyatta then challenged the Senator to publicly identify him as dishonest if he failed to remain on the reform track, stating that it is Kenya's true friends who will tell them when they are naked.”

9 years later, Obama did return as President of the United States and again met with Kenyatta, now President of Kenya. Did Obama take up the challenge? Did he show himself to be one of “Kenya's true friends who will tell them when they are naked”?

Well, the verdict would appear to be mixed at best. Certainly, he spoke eloquently about the need to confront corruption but with nowhere near the forcefulness of his 2006 speech, when he had averred that “the message that many Kenyans seemed to be sending was one of dissatisfaction with the pace of reform, and real frustration with continued tolerance of corruption at high levels”.

This time round, while acknowledging that the government needed to enforce anti-corruption laws and prosecute offenders, he chided opposition politicians for demanding that he put pressure on the Uhuru administration over, according to them, corruption, insecurity and repressive laws restricting the media and civil society. "Everybody wants the United States to be involved when they're not in power but when they are in power, they don't want USA to be involved," Obama told representatives of Civil Society, adding that he had made it clear to the opposition chiefs that there is a legitimate government in Kenya, which the US would work with.

(Interestingly, according to another leaked US diplomatic cable, Kenyatta, whose administration has spent much of its first two years in office vilifying the West for its supposed impositions, had in 2006 made the same request, even going so far as to suggest that the Americans could use donor-funded programs as an effective pressure point.)

In his speech to the Kenyan people, very much a rehash of his 2006 effort but with important edits, he also declared that corruption was tolerated because it had become a way of life, a habit and culture that needed to change. This contrasts with his previous stance when he had painted corruption as a problem of governance and praised those who “reject[ed] the insulting idea that corruption is somehow a part of Kenyan culture”.

Earlier, during a joint press conference with Kenyatta, Obama had noted that the corruption culture can change “over time” when “people of integrity at the highest levels” are willing to punish, not just petty corruption but also hold the elite to account. ”Breaking habits and saying no comes from the top,” he noted. However, while praising his counterpart’s “announced commitment to rooting out corruption”, Obama did not mention that the fight against sleaze was already coming off the rails just four months after being trumpeted. Nor that many in the country were sceptical about the government’s commitment to prosecuting its own. Talk, it seems, is now progress enough.

This is again a marked change from 2006 when Obama demanded that wealth declarations by public officials be accessible to the public (hasn’t happened), called for accountable, transparent government and an anti-corruption commission with real authority.

By attributing corruption to the people and ignoring the meagre anti-corruption achievements, Obama appeared determined to spare his hosts shame, perhaps mindful of the reaction his 2006 speech had elicited from the Mwai Kibaki administration which described him as an unintelligent and immature opposition puppet.

The reluctance to directly criticize the Kenyatta government was most obvious when he addressed the issues of terrorism and the illegal wildlife trade. On the former, he praised the “extensive and effective counter-terrorism cooperation” and offered “practical advice” on avoiding stigmatization of communities and restrictions on legitimate civil society organizations.  

However, he chose not to highlight the fact that the Kenyan government had done little to convince ordinary Kenyans that it was taking the security problem seriously or learning lessons from the many attacks the country has suffered.

Similarly, even as he announced new restrictions on ivory in the US in a bid to help stem the slaughter of the country’s elephants, he failed to take to task the Kenyan government for protecting the poachers doing the killing.

Throughout the visit, Obama seemed determined to paint a picture of progress and amid continuing challenges, to re-cast Kenya as “a good news story” with Kenyatta at the helm “taking important steps in the right direction”. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.  But disappointing for those who had hoped Obama’s tour would include a candid examination of whether his hosts had stayed true to the reform agenda. In the end, for all his flowery talk, Obama could not find the courage to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


As Kenya prepares to welcome President Barack Obama, it's famously noisy social media collective has been thrown into a tizzy by a CNN anchor alleging the country is "a terror hotbed" and "one of the most dangerous countries in the world". This is not the first time the network has run afoul of Kenyans On Twitter or "KOT" as we like to refer to ourselves. The hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN has been employed several times over the last few years to punish the network for perceived misreporting on the country.

The latest kerfuffle comes hot on the heels of last week's humiliation when the Italian Prime Minister wore body armor under his suit when he went to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. Now, while Nairobi is not Mogadishu, the Italian and CNN theatrics notwithstanding, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that there is good reason for the world to worry about our commitment to staying that way.

Just last week, we celebrated the re-opening of the Westgate Mall, scene of a massacre of at least 67 people by at least four militants from the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terror group. The reconstructed building was hailed as a monument to resilience and the triumph of the Kenyan spirit.

Any mention of the many failure on the part of the government and its security agencies or the deliberate disinformation, scapegoating and cover up that followed, was conveniently edited out of the narrative. It is all very reminiscent of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s error-strewn statement in the aftermath of the attack declaring we had “ashamed and defeated” the attackers, even as evidence of the incompetence that led to the deaths of so many was beginning to emerge.

In fact, what little local discussion there has been of Westgate over the last two years has tended to echo such sentiments. The official version of events has received little examination, despite the gaping holes that resist both spin and a tidy denouement. Even official statements that should give some pause for thought don’t appear to elicit as much as a batted eyelid. Like when senior police officers admit the learnt nothing from the attack; or the Red Cross suggests more than 67 may have died and that it still cannot account for 18 people; or when DNA tests fail to identify bodies recovered from the mall as those of the terrorists.

The relentless tendency to downplay failures has continued to be a feature of the government response to terrorist attacks since Westgate. What is puzzling is why other players and institutions, including the media and the opposition are seemingly loathe to demand answers. Security failure, even when acknowledged, is discussed in vague and bombastic terms. Solutions, when they are proposed, tend to have little to do with actual security problems.

Thus Kenyans must endure, on the one hand, an administration that keeps committing the same errors over and over again, that appears incapable of learning and adapting, and that addresses the problem primarily as a public relations, not security challenge. On the other, a feckless and witless opposition and media, unable or unwilling to articulate security issues in anything other than political terms. Only sporadically, within the largely silenced civil society, does the issue come up. 

Given an atmosphere where important questions do not get asked and when they are, never get answered, it is perhaps not surprising that the premium is placed on moving on. And this, more than anything else is what the reopening of Westgate represents. A defiant, fatalistic and stoic acceptance of the reality of terrorism and of the inevitability of government and institutional failure.

This is perhaps why there is little interrogation of what resilience is supposed to mean. It is much more PC to praise Kenyans for venturing back into Westgate than to discuss their fear of confronting their own government and of demanding an accounting from those whose job it is to protect them. Few want to expose what is being called resilience for what is really is: resignation. A negation of the idea that Kenya could do better. Today, few Kenyans believe safety from terrorists is to be found in the assurances of government or its security agencies. Long ago, many turned to prayer or, for those who can afford it, to Israeli security consultants.

As the stores reopen and life goes on pretty much as it has before, with perhaps a few more cameras and security screens. But there can be no relief from the realization that the many who died at Westgate died in vain. Their passing, while tragic and much lamented, has resulted in little change. And because of that, many more who could’ve been saved, in places like Mpeketoni, Mandera, and Garissa, have instead perished.

So as we pile into CNN, we might also want to take a minute to do some much needed introspection. And beyond hunting for compliments at the gleaming Westgate storefronts, we should peer into the dark basement and ask the uncomfortable questions. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Obama's Second Coming

From a Kenyan perspective, the last decade has pretty much been a wasted opportunity for the country’s relationship with the US. The election of Barrack Obama had raised hopes of a deeper and more meaningful engagement given his Kenyan roots. However it coincided with two seminal events of Kenyan presidential ballot history. This was the violence that followed the disputed vote in 2008 and five years later, the election of a crimes against humanity indictee to the highest office in the land.

Like Mwai Kibaki before him, President Uhuru Kenyatta came to office with a serious legitimacy deficit. His administration too is hobbled by corruption and has been accused of clamping down on civic freedoms. Coupled with Obama’s own troubles at home, as a loony fringe loudly questioned whether he was sufficiently American, these, inevitably created a regrettable distance between the two countries. The situation was perhaps best summed up in then Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson’s statement on the eve of the 2013 election: “choices have consequences”.

The UK also issued similar warnings of minimal contacts should Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, both of whom had been indicted by the International Criminal Court over the 2008 post-election violence, win the polls. Though these eventually turned out to be hollow, the perceptions of Western interference supercharged the duo’s campaign and helped get them elected.

Once in office, a part of their push to get their cases dropped, UhuRuto (as they became known) fanned anti-Western sentiment both at home and across the continent, painting the ICC, in the words of Uhuru’s address to the African Union, as a “toy of declining imperial powers”, and playing up the new engagement with China as a counterweight to the West.

Obama too was keen to keep his distance. Following the example of his immediate predecessors, he made a point of skipping Kenya on the two African tours of his first term. If anything, it appeared that Tanzania, which is getting rather used to US presidential visits having hosted Bill Clinton, George Bush and Obama, seemed to be the US’s new BFF in the region.

One would thus have imagined that relations with the US had settled into the back of the freezer for the foreseeable future. It was all so different from 2008 when Kenya had been the only country in the world to declare a public holiday in celebration of Obama’s election.

So what changed?

Terrorism for one. Kenya has been a target of attacks from the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terror group ever since it invaded its neighbour in October 2011. But under the Uhuru administration, the numbers and severity of attacks have skyrocketed. The government’s incompetent response has generated the possibility of a spreading Islamist-inspired insurgency across Kenya’s north-eastern border regions. The threat to the largest economy in East and Central Africa and a bulwark for regional stability simply could not be ignored. Perhaps Obama is betting that by re-engaging with Uhuru, he can gently nudge him to take the necessary measures to confront it.

Secondly, it is important to note that the anti-Western rhetoric was always little more than a charade. The aim was to discredit the ICC, not alienate the West. It was not about taking Obama on, but getting Uhuru off. Under the surface, admiration for Obama ran deep. The two modelled their campaign and atmospherics on him, and across the country, as reflected in a 2014 Pew survey, Obama remains popular.

 What are we to expect of the visit?

While the official reason Obama is coming is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit there is little doubt that behind the scenes, it will dominated by concerns over the worsening security and governance situation. Less than a week prior to his arrival, the reopening of the Westgate mall, scene of an Al Shabaab massacre of at least 67 people two years ago, will be presented as a sign of resilience in the face of terrorism. But it also stands as a monument to the refusal by the authorities to learn lessons from previous attacks and to make much needed improvements. Obama himself has said that counter-terrorism will be an important focus of the visit. And while he will probably be more restrained when criticising his hosts in public than he was during his visit as Senator in 2006, one would still expect some tough talking away from the cameras.

The Kenyan government will also probably be on its best behaviour. It is best to ignore the loopy-headed warnings of Obama being thrown out of Parliament if he mentions gay marriage - he is not even scheduled to address MPs. Ditto the mooted 5000-strong nude march to protest the issue.
Nairobi is being spruced up in anticipation of the visit but that will be cold comfort for its long suffering residents. The homeless are being rounded up and will be kept out of sight and with much of the city expected to be in virtual lockdown, the usually terrible traffic will be nightmarish. In fact there is talk of an “Obamigration” as those who can flee the city in advance of Obama’s arrival.

The visit will also be a boon to the country’s cops. A new directive of dubious legality requires that everyone in Nairobi carry ID or risk arrest. There is no law in Kenya that requires the carrying of documents on pain of detention and this will only create an avenue for rich pickings for 15000 members of the famously corrupt National Police Service as citizens try to avoid the prospect of a weekend behind bars.

 The real test of the visit will be what happens after he leaves. Will there be any lasting change? It will be particularly interesting to see whether Obama is able to persuade Kenyatta to take security seriously and to stop using it as an excuse to clamp down on civil rights. Movement on that front alone would make all the hassle worthwhile.