Not since the days of President Daniel arap Moi, a classic African “Big Man,” has the U.S. been so tough on Kenya. The latest salvo came on Sept. 24, when Washington threatened to ban 15 senior officials from the U.S. for their failure to push through reforms after bloody post-election violence in early 2008. Even worse for a cash-strapped Kenya, the U.S. promised to scrutinize the government’s requests to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This is not the close friendship that Kenya had in mind when Barack Obama, a man whose father was born in Kenya, won the U.S. presidency. Kenya declared it a national holiday when Obama’s victory was announced, and his visage is ever present here on gum wrappers, in airline magazines and, briefly, on a beer label.
But some in Kenya’s government believe that “Brother Barack,” as he is known, has not reciprocated the love that they feel for him. Nor has Obama made good on their hopes that his Kenyan ancestry might lead him to give their country some kind of preferential treatment. Instead, Obama seems determined to use what influence he has in the way a parent might withhold love from an errant child. “I sometimes think Obama’s roots in Kenya can actually be a problem,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga said in a recent newspaper interview. “Kenya is always being held to different standards compared to neighboring countries.”
The U.S. government, in fact, has been among the loudest countries in voicing its displeasure that Kenya’s coalition government which formed after the violence and is led by President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga has not yet prosecuted the instigators or made a dent against corruption. “There may have been a belief in Kibaki’s circles that Obama was sympathetic to them, and they can’t understand why he’s delivering all this bad news,” Mwalimu Mati, head of an anti-corruption organization called Mars Group, tells TIME. “On the Odinga side, supporters are saying, ‘Why on earth is Barack Obama being so hard on us’ ”
Kenyans’ belief in a connection with Obama is very real. His election victory was greeted with street celebrations and ecstatic parties. The Kenyan media cover his every interaction with local officials exhaustively. Much hand-wringing and speculation ensued, for example, when Odinga was uninvited to a lunch with Obama during the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly last week. It turns out that Odinga’s invitation was a clerical error.
Now, however, Washington’s potential ban on U.S. entry for 15 Kenyan senior officials is the latest and most blatant sign that Kenyan leaders may have misjudged their Brother Barack. Letters written by Assistant Secretary of State Johnny Carson were delivered to 15 senior government leaders who were deemed to be moving too slowly on reforms. Chief among the government’s failings has been its inability to prosecute the government officials who are believed to have orchestrated the violence. In the letters, Carson wrote, “I am writing to inform you that your future relationship with the United States is linked to your support for urgent implementation of the reform agenda as well as opposition to the use of violence.”
Obama’s actions strike a distinctly sharper tone than that of the Bush Administration, which was critical of the government’s handling of the violence. Indeed, if the travel bans are enacted, Kenya would join the company of Zimbabwe and Sudan in being countries with officials who are not allowed entry to the U.S. And the last time the IMF and World Bank suspended loans to Kenya was in the late 1990s, under Moi’s dictatorial rule. All this comes at a trying time for the country. The Kenyan economy has been hobbled by the post-election violence and a punishing drought. Staff who conducted a recent census have been unpaid, and the financial crisis has robbed many people of their income, meaning fewer tax receipts.
On Wednesday, in an attempt to defuse Kenyan and U.S. anger, the much-criticized chief of the Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission resigned. Though Ringera’s resignation was considered a good sign, the Kenyan government’s primary response to the letters was to accuse Obama of a breach of protocol for writing to the 15 officials directly rather than to Kibaki. Instead of acknowledging the slow pace of reform, Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula suggested that actions like the U.S.’s could “precipitate the hardening of the mood over the reform process.” Then Kenyan officials blamed U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger, who was given the task of announcing that the letters were sent. Ranneberger was summoned to a meeting with Wetangula, where he was told to turn over the names of the letter recipients.
The government’s treatment of Ranneberger reflected just how unwilling it was to acknowledge that Obama might think badly of the Kenyan leadership. Ranneberger, a longtime Africa hand, was accused of turning an otherwise sympathetic Obama against Kenya with misinformation. “We appreciate the way Hillary Clinton has treated us with respect and decorum,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua said in a recent interview, referring to the Secretary of State’s visit to Kenya this summer. “She achieved more in two days than what the U.S. mission in Nairobi has achieved in the last two years by intimidation and threats. Our perspective has always been that the right information is not getting to Obama. It was very clear to us when Hillary Clinton was here and expressed surprise at how much had been achieved.”
Ranneberger is indeed outspoken he recently opened a Twitter account, USAMB4REFORM to tweet his thoughts on Kenya. “Despite warnings by some, I will still speak out supporting reforms in Kenya,” read one. “President Obama and the Kenyan people demand nothing less!”
While there was some public annoyance with Washington’s action, the government’s attempt to appeal to Kenyan nationalism may have backfired. Regular Kenyans seem to think that Brother Barack was only doing his familial duty. An unofficial television poll after the news of the U.S. letters broke found that 82% of respondents disagreed with the Foreign Ministry’s move to summon Ranneberger. And no one is more critical of Kenya’s leaders than Kenyans themselves. “The government’s attitude has been that this can’t be happening unless somebody’s inciting Obama and that it’s got nothing to do with them,” says Mati, the anti-corruption activist. “They are truly in denial.”
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