As Kenya prepares to hold its first voting since the 2007 elections that launched conflicts that killed 1,000 Kenyans, President Obama recorded a message posted on Youtube urging Kenyans to “reject intimidation and violence, and allow a free and fair vote.”
It is a crucial moment for Kenya. Not only is the East African nation of 42 million eager to show that it can have a peaceful election, but this is the first election the country has held since it adopted a new constitution in 2010 — as the president pointed out in his videotaped message. The violence that proceeded the disputed results in 2007 left 650,000 displaced from their homes. Some reports indicate the tensions that led to the violence have not diminished.
“The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people. The United States does not endorse any candidate for office, but we do support an election that is peaceful and reflects the will of the people,” Obama said. “This is a moment for the people of Kenya to come together, instead of tearing apart. If you do, you can show the world that you are not just a member of a tribe or ethnic group, but citizens of a great and proud nation.”
The local Kenyan media was quick to point out that Obama — an enormously popular figure in the country since his father was born in Kenyan and his step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, still lives in the village of Kogelo — refrained from endorsing any candidates in the upcoming election.
The U.S. president, who began his video message with a greeting in Swahili, said he had been “greatly moved” by the “warmth and spirit, the strength and resolve of the Kenyan people” that he saw during his several visits to the nation.
“We all know what makes for successful elections,” he said. “Kenya must reject intimidation and violence, and allow a free and fair vote. Kenyans must resolve disputes in the courts, not in the streets. Above all, the people of Kenya must come together, before and after the election, to carry on the work of building your country.”
A report from the International Crisis Group sounded an alarmist note, stressing that the potential for conflict next month remains high.
“Conflict drivers underlying the 2007-2008 violence remain unresolved and may be cynically used by politicians to whip up support,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Africa Program deputy director. “Attacks blamed on the extremist Al-Shabaab movement and clashes over land can cloak political violence. Police reform has lagged and the security forces look ill-prepared to secure the polls.”
Surely the president hopes that his message will be warmly received by Kenyans before their big moment on March 4.
Obama’s Kenyan heritage has been an issue that his right-wing detractors have tried to use over the years to attack him as less than American. Former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich most memorably said in 2010 that Obama exhibited “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”