In the past few weeks, I’ve talked with a lot of Kenyans about what they think Barack Obama’s victory means for them personally and for the country. Many of the younger ones see him as an inspiration: if he can make it, so can they. Some talk about their hope that more Americans will visit Kenya in order to learn more about his roots, giving the tourism industry a much needed shot in the arm. But the comment that has stuck with me is one I heard from a political activist named Mwalimu Mati on the morning after the vote. “The Kenyan election last year was botched, and we don’t have a legally elected government,” he said. “Obama gives us optimism that there can be change here, too.”
Change. It’s the word on everyone’s lips here, just as it is in the United States. After a violent few weeks last January following a contested presidential election, Kenyans would like nothing better than a way out of the political, land and ethnic clashes that periodically afflict the country and that in the most recent case could so easily have turned into full-scale civil war. A Gallup poll released in October showed that 70 percent don’t think the election was honest and that only 25 percent believe that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, actually won his re-election bid. On the economic front, with inflation running at close to 30 percent and nearly half the population living in poverty, a majority think conditions are getting worse.
Yet where that change will come from is not clear. Right now, members of the coalition government that Kofi Annan brokered to end the carnage seem to be spending more time sniping at one another and maneuvering for influence than dealing with the root causes of the election disaster.
If the past is any indication, the United States is not likely to be a lot of help–any more than it has been elsewhere on the continent. From its support of the apartheid regime in South Africa to its endorsement of Kibaki’s win despite strong evidence that showed he’d lost, US policy in Africa has always been much more about preserving the status quo than welcoming new directions. And from what I’ve seen since returning to Kenya in 2005 after many years away, finger-wagging–metaphorically if not literally–remains the hallmark of American diplomacy.
“US policy has not changed very much since independence” in 1963, says professor Macharia Munene, a Kenyan historian who got his PhD in the United States. “The common thread is telling other people what to do.” Recalling US bullying tactics aimed at getting Kenya to pass an anti-terrorism bill that Muslims in particular felt would violate their civil rights, he argues that even when it comes to terrorism–which Kenyans know firsthand, having experienced two bombings linked to Al Qaeda that caused the deaths or injuries of well over 4,000 people–Washington takes an imperious approach. “Terrorism is a legitimate concern, but it’s overdone,” says Munene. “The US acts like it’s the only one who knows what to do.”