NAIROBI, KENYA — A U.S. government-backed program is telling young Kenyans "Yes Youth Can!" in a political program designed to improve leadership skills that carries overtones of President Obama's election message.
Hundreds of young Kenyans gathered Tuesday for the program's first county-level meeting.
The initiative, though, has caused anxiety among Kenyan politicians who fear the $45 million project is a way to oust them from power, prompting the U.S. Embassy to issue several clarifications
U.S. Ambassador Scott Gration said in an email on Tuesday that the U.S. is not empowering young Kenyans to overthrow the government.
"We are working with young people in both urban and rural areas to help them know what empowerment means. There is a leadership vacuum that the youth should be prepared to fill," Mr. Gration said. "We want the youth to be for something useful - to be able to contribute positively to Kenyan society, politics, and its economy."
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga last year raised concern about the project and its motives, but their sentiments did not seem to deter Kenyan youth from joining the initiative.
More than 500,000 youth from thousands of villages are involved in the initiative, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm known as USAID.
On Tuesday, 400 delegates representing 200 village parliaments formed by the U.S. initiative in Taita Taveta County gathered to elect county representatives. They also passed a constitution governing the group's activities.
The meeting was the first of its kind and other counties will soon hold similar meetings, said Katya Thomas, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.
Elizabeth Awuor, a 25-year-old from Taita Taveta County, said by telephone from Tuesday's meeting that politicians' opposition to the initiative comes from the fear they will no longer be able to manipulate young people.
"Leaders are panicking because we are being empowered and they will not be able to misuse us the way they did in the 2007 elections," Ms. Awuor said.
A government report found that social inequality caused by corruption helped fuel Kenya's 2007-08 post-election violence, attacks in which more than 1,000 people died.
Frustrated, unemployed youth were behind most of the violence, joining tribal militias and gangs at the behest of politicians fighting for power, the October 2008 report said.
Violence erupted in late 2007 after Mr. Kibaki was declared the winner of an election international observers and Mr. Odinga - Mr. Kibaki's main challenger - said was flawed.
More than 600,000 Kenyans were evicted from their homes during tribe-on-tribe violence. A peace agreement formed a coalition government in which Mr. Odinga became prime minister.
After the violence, USAID commissioned a survey on why youth in the country are vulnerable.
The 2009 research found that almost 2 million youth - Kenyans aged 15 to 30 - were out of school, and the majority had no regular work or income. That made them vulnerable to recruitment for pay into political campaigns and criminal gangs, the research found.
Kenya's youth also expressed a desire to have their own voice in affairs that affect them through youth-run organizations, the report said.
The report's findings led to the formation of the "Yes Youth Can!" initiative.
The former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, who launched the project, said in an interview in April, just before he left his post, that youth empowerment will help avoid a repeat of postelection violence during Kenya's next presidential election in 2012.
"If you have poverty the way it is, of course it is always going to be possible to manipulate people, but if enough attitudes change and youth start networking with each other and talking that could be a huge dynamic," Mr. Ranneberger said in April.