Kenyan Politicians to America: Don’t Be Afraid of Obama

To her audience in Kenya, the minister was drawing an obvious comparison. Four years ago, a substantial contingent of Kenyan politicians—including Raila Odinga, a presidential aspirant—traveled to Boston to hear Obama speak. This year, Ngilu told me, many were kept at home by pressing domestic issues. The last Kenyan election, held last December, was riddled with fraud and disputed by Odinga, the supposed narrow loser, and devolved into horrifying ethnic violence. The country is now ruled by a quarrelsome coalition government that includes both Odinga and his opponent, President Mwai Kibaki, and is only slowly returning to normal. Ngilu, a member of Odinga’s party, said that Kenyans were looking at America’s election with some measure of envy.

One of the Kenyan reporters asked Ngilu about a recent report in the Nairobi newspaper The Nation that suggested that Raila Odinga had canceled plans to attend this Democratic convention because he was named in Jerome Corsi’s book ObamaNation. (Corsi reportedly described him as a “Muslim sympathizer with well-known communist political roots”.) In an apparent attempt to appropriate a little bit of the Obama aura, Odinga has claimed that he is the American candidate’s distant cousin.

“I have not seen the book,” Ngilu replied. “I think we should not link our politics with American politics, because I think American politics are much higher than our village politics.”

Afterward, the two female politicians walked around the corner for lunch. Ngilu told me that she’d met Obama herself. When he visited the country last year as part of a senatorial mission to Africa, she escorted him on an excursion to a notorious Nairobi slum. Her friend Njogu said she’d been inspired by a speech Obama had given in which he’d talked frankly about Kenya’s ethnic divisions. The Obama family belongs to the Luo tribe, the one that rose up in Kenya after Odinga, also a Luo, was declared the loser of the 2007 election. During the crisis, Kenyans used to make a joke mordantly that the United States would have a Luo president before their country would.

“I’m seeing this kind of connection” between the Obama campaign and the Kenyan public, Ngilu said. “It’s like they all want to own him. They want him to understand that they expect so much of him.”

I mentioned that one line of attack on Obama, as Njogu had alluded to in her question to the panel, was the very thing that attracted the Kenyans to Obama—his unique roots.

“It’s going from what you know to what you don’t know,” Ngilu said. Then she added, jokingly, “Don’t put that sentence in because I will scare them.”

“I think, like the minister is saying, America is ripe for that real change,” Njogu added. “It presents a very big opportunity for Americans to really embrace growth. Because you can only grow when you move from your comfort zone.”

“For how long are the other nations of the world going to fear America?” the minister went on. “Maybe this is the person who the world has been waiting for, to bridge the gap."