When he strolled into a hall at the University of Nairobi to give a public address, American Senator Barack Obama may not have imagined that his speech would kick off a diplomatic feud with the Kenyan Government.
Mr Obama’s take on Kenya’s anti-corruption record, anti-terror policy and negative ethnicity sparked swift reaction from sections of the Government, led by spokesman Alfred Mutua and ambassador to the US, Mr Peter Oginga Ogego.
During the public lecture at the university on August 28, 2006, the man poised to be the USA’s first African-American president made it clear that Kenya was doing badly in its efforts to fight corruption.
According to Mr Obama, Kenya did not have the kind of transparent accountable government that encourages development. He added that on every level the people of Kenya still suffer due to corruption.
“Like many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable; one that serves its people and is free from corruption...
“But while corruption is a problem we all share, here in Kenya it is a crisis - a crisis that’s robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought for; the opportunity they deserve,” the Democrat US presidential candidate said.
Mr Obama identified corruption and ethnicity-based politics and patronage as among challenges that Kenya must overcome.
While many Kenyans hailed the speech and termed it an honest opinion, diplomatic experts warned that the senator’s utterances were likely to strain the relations between Kenya and the US.
The US senator told those gathered that corruption could also provide opportunities for those who would harness the fear and hatred of others to their agenda and ambitions.
“It can shield a war criminal - even one like Felicien Kabuga, suspected of helping to finance and orchestrate the Rwandan genocide - by allowing him to purchase safe haven for a time and robbing all humanity of the opportunity to bring the criminal to justice,” said Mr Obama.
The senator also said that ethnic-based tribal politics in Kenya had to stop. Such politics was rooted in the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one’s family, tribe, or circle with little regard for the public good, he said.
Mr Obama said that this stifles innovation and fractures the fabric of the society. Instead of opening businesses and engaging in commerce, people come to rely on patronage and payback as a means of advancing. Instead of unifying the country to move forward on solving problems, it divides neighbours, he added.
Two days after the speech, Dr Mutua issued a statement criticising Senator Obama’s public address, terming him as “very poorly informed”. He added that Mr Obama trivialised the harmony and peaceful co-existence between different ethnic groups and races living in Kenya.
“During his public address at the University of Nairobi, Senator Obama made extremely disturbing statements on issues which it is clear he was very poorly informed, and on which he chose to lecture the Government and the people of Kenya on how to manage our country,” Dr Mutua said in the statement still on his website.
The Government spokesman was even quoted in the international press saying that Mr Obama was being used as a political stooge by the Opposition, then led by Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
“Sen Obama has to look critically at where he’s receiving his advice from... Somebody somewhere wants to run for president and is using Sen Obama as his stooge, as his puppet, to be able to get to where he wants,” Dr Mutua was quoted by a Chicago-based TV station, CBS2.
During his weekly briefing on October 23 this year, Dr Mutua was categorical that he stood by his statement. Asked if the State, given that Mr Obama was poised to be the next US President, would apologise for its 2006 statement, the spokesman said that the Government stood by its word.
“There is no apology at all. We were making a very serious government statement at that time that he was out of step to comment on internal issues of this country from a position of lack of knowledge. He was speaking about issues and making allegations without proper briefing of where the Government has actually come to.
“And we still stand by that point but it does not mean that we do not support Obama. It does not mean that we do not support his presidency,” Dr Mutua said during his briefing.
He was also categorical that the statement was not personal but a government statement.
And in a letter to the Illinois senator after the 2006 visit, the Kenyan ambassador, Mr Ogego, termed Mr Obama’s remarks as having been in bad taste and injurious to Kenya-US bilateral relations.
His statement said in part: “Your unprovoked and uncalled for statements were in bad taste, particularly given that your visit was well arranged in advance, with full briefings given to your office in Washington DC by the Kenyan Embassy.”
Mr Ogego said that the allegations that corruption and tribalism had reached a crisis point in Kenya could only poison and injure relations between the two countries. He also accused the senator of having deliberately twisted the truth about the Government’s fight against corruption to gain publicity.
“You deliberately, without real cause or reason, other than what appears to be to seek cheap publicity and inconsequential populism, chose to publicly attack the democratically elected Government of Kenya, in total disregard for the requisite protocol and acceptable methods to address the issues you raised, what with programmed appointments to meet Cabinet ministers and even the Head of State, since your visit was official,” Mr Ogego said.
But Senator Obama told Mr Osego in a letter dated September 15, 2006, that the best judge of his speech at the University of Nairobi was not the Government but the Kenyan people.
“If Kenya is to meet the challenges of the 21st century and satisfy aspirations of its great people, substantially more progress must be made on the issues of tribalism and corruption,” Obama said in the letter
The senator dismissed issues raised in Mr Ogego’s letter, and added that as a technical matter, the envoy had breached protocol since he had not yet presented his credentials to President Bush by the time of issuing the statement.
“While you seem to believe the Government is doing all it can, a number of Kenyan politicians, members of civil society, the media, and many ordinary Kenyans have told me the exact opposite. Many have welcomed my statement as a much-needed call to action,” the senator said.
“I feel it would be more productive to simply issue a general response. I invite you to follow up with me in person, or via further correspondence, on issues you feel warrant additional attention”.