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LEADING CANDIDATE: Odinga at a campaign rally in Malini, Kenya
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LEADING CANDIDATE: Odinga at a campaign rally in Malini, Kenya

Caught in the middle

Kenya | It’s hard for the U.S. president to play neutral in Kenya’s upcoming election

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new president on March 4 with two candidates on the ballot currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court over crimes against humanity—and with memories of deadly violence after the 2007 presidential election on everyone’s mind. The charges against Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding president, and his deputy William Ruto, stem from that post-election violence that killed over 1,200 people.

Not surprisingly, this election poses a challenge to the international community, with the possibility that indictees before The Hague court could become the East African nation’s next head of state and deputy. But not so to President Barack Obama. On Feb. 5 Obama sent a message via YouTube to Kenyans assuring them that the United States will accept the results of the Kenyan elections, and is willing to work with whomever they elect. 

As soon as the video drew widespread attention in Kenya, Kenyatta and Ruto rushed to commend Obama, and some of their supporters claimed the U.S. president had endorsed the pair. That rumor spread, and two days later, U.S. Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson issued a clarification: The United States does not favor any candidate and the choices Kenyans make will “have consequences.” Many Kenyans interpreted that statement as support for Raila Odinga, Kenya’s current prime minister, considered the leading candidate. Political activists called for the Kenyan ambassador to the United States, Elkhana Odembo, to be recalled after he admitted he met with Carson. At one point Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked U.S. diplomats to clarify the U.S. position on the election after seemingly “contradictory statements” by Obama and Carson.

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Obama in the video clearly states, “The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people. The United States does not support any candidate for office.” But his entanglement in Kenya’s presidential affairs may be unavoidable: Obama’s father comes from the same part of the country as Odinga and leaders of his Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), including Ambassador Odembo. Tribal loyalties—and awareness of Obama’s African roots—are strong. 

This election comes with fresh memories for Kenyans of the aftermath of the 2007 elections. Kenyans turned against each other then in an orgy of violence, leading to the death of more than 1,200 and the displacement of more than 600,000 people. The church in Kenya stood accused of abdicating its responsibility and taking sides in the political arena, which made it unable to play a role when a dispute broke out between the main political players at that time. However, this time the Christian community is pro-active. Churches brought together political players from different parties in one forum to debate their policies and help Kenyans to make an informed choice—hopefully without deadly violence. They organized the first ever debate for the vice-presidential candidates, which focused on the candidates’ religious beliefs, corruption, gay rights, and reproductive health issues. At the end of the debate, the candidates made a pledge to abide by the decision of the voters, and to use legal means to solve any disputes that may arise.

—Moses Wasamu is editor of South Sudan’s Christian Times and lives in Nairobi

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