- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

BLESSING AND CURSE

President Obama’s heritage puts Kenya in an international spotlight, as it wrestles with corruption and constitutional reform and deals with unwanted attention from those who demand higher standards from the East African nation, a top Kenyan official said this week.

“It’s both a blessing and a curse,” Raphael Tuju, an adviser to President Mwai Kibaki, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Mr. Tuju led a delegation that included Amina Mohammed, permanent secretary for the Justice Ministry; Thuita Mwangi, permanent secretary for the Foreign Ministry; and Sam Mwale, a top economic adviser.

They agreed that Mr. Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, remains wildly popular throughout Kenyan society.

“He is an inspiration for many children and shows that anything is possible,” Mrs. Mohammed said.

“There is a lot more hope that things can change,” Mr. Tuju added.

He also said Mr. Obama renewed respect for the United States, calling his election a “vindication for the America that the world had grown to dislike.”

“Kenyans are justifiably proud,” he said of Mr. Obama’s heritage. “The ordinary person is very excited. Obama is a well-known name in the local village.

“But at the end of the day, he is an American, not a Kenyan. … If President Obama came to Kenya and said he wanted to run for office, he would not make it because he is an American.”

The delegation also scoffed at claims by some of Mr. Obama’s detractors who suspect he was actually born in Kenya, not Hawaii.

“We just laugh about it,” Mr. Tuju said.

However, the attention Mr. Obama’s election brought to Kenya also greater expectations for reforms on a nation long riven by tribal disputes and still recoiling from political violence after the 2007 presidential election and from a drought entering its fourth season.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger sparked a political backlash in Kenya after he revealed that the Obama administration was growing impatient with the slow pace of electoral reform. Mr. Ranneberger last week said the State Department sent letters to 15 top Kenyan officials, implying they were responsible for stalling legislation to ensure more open and fair elections.

Mr. Tuju declined to comment directly on the letters, signed by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. However, he explained that Kenyans are fed up with corruption and demand reforms.

“Some Kenyans believe that those responsible for corruption should be shot,” Mr. Tuju said.

He added that many Kenyans are “passionate about reform.”

“When it comes to corruption, it is a life or death issue,” he said.

Mr. Mwale noted that Kenyans are demanding constitutional, economic and societal reform, all at the same time.

“The Kenyan people want all of these,” he said, explaining that the government is planning economic reforms that include special enterprise zones to create employment. “They want the economy fixed because they want jobs. They want politics fixed because they want democracy. The want social reforms.”

All of those demands, combined with the international glare of the Obama spotlight, brings added pressure on the government. Kenya is supposed to be the leader in East Africa, although it is a “reluctant” regional power, Mr. Tuju said. He compared the new responsibility thrust upon Kenya to an unwelcome astronomical phenomenon.

“Any time something is falling from the sky,” he added, “it falls first on us.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison @washingtontimes.com.

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