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February 17, 2019

Why Khalwale and Kuria are wrong about Obama

Former Kakamega senator Bonny Khalwale /file
Former Kakamega senator Bonny Khalwale /file
Some politicians in Kenya seek relevance by any means.  They criticise, berate and downplay the achievements of others.  And this week, former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale and the raucous Gatundu South MP, Moses Kuria, took to their social media accounts to criticise former US President Barack Obama for not bringing development to Kenya. 

Also, according to them, Obama’s visits to his ancestral K’Ogelo village have been unproductive.

They are wrong.   I knew Obama as the Senator of Illinois when he visited Kenya in 2006.    As the media adviser at the US embassy in Nairobi at the time, I was assigned to accompany a bevy of local and foreign journalists to cover hispublic events in Nairobi, Kisumu and K’Ogelo in Siaya  

Before this, I had formed my opinion about Obama through a speech he delivered to the US embassy staff at Gigiri, Nairobi.  He talked about his travails in search of his identity in Kenya; teamwork among American and Kenyan embassy staff, and his detest for ethnicity and tribalism.

I accompanied him to the Standard Media Group offices at I&M building in downtown Nairobi, where hooded goons had not long ago attacked the media house, harassed staff, destroyed and confiscated equipment.  In meetings with the management staff, Obama regretted the attacks and called for tolerance on the part of the Narc government in to free press.   

In a speech he gave at the University of Nairobi, Obama spoke against corruption and called for the empowerment of women and youth as future leaders.  He also urged Kenyan leaders to reject politics of ethnicity and tribalism. During a question-and-answer session, Professor Olewe Nyunya asked if Obama would vie for President in 2008. He was noncommittal.

The Narc government reacted to the speech in a predictable manner.  Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua, the then government spokesperson, downplayed Obama’s remarks, calling him a junior senator.  Two years later, in 2008, the junior senator was elected to lead the world’s strongest nation.

Obama’s visits to Kisumu and K’Ogelo were dramatic.  In Kisumu, he and his wife, Michelle, were tested for HIV-Aids at a demonstration clinic that was meant to encourage residents to know their status. At K’Ogelo that afternoon, Obama easily mingled with the villagers, telling them his previous ventures to find the village his father was buried.  After a meal of ugali, smoked fish and boiled goat meat, the senator held private discussions with Mama Sarah, the grandmother, which lasted about one-and-a-half hours. 

We then hurriedly got back to Nairobi for a meet-the-people tour of Kibera in Nairobi, which was to be the climax of his visit.    Thousands of Kibera residents turned up that evening to welcome the person they called “our own son”.  And Obama had a message for them: “I’m not different from you”. “You can be what you want to be in life.   All you have to do is to keep working hard to realise your dreams.” 

The Obama’s story is told tin his books, notably, The Audacity of Hope and From Promise to Power.   Obama’s Kenya critics such as Khalwale and Kuria ought to read these books, if they have not done so already.

For starters, through Obama’s efforts and name recognition, KOgelo village is not the same today. The face and status of this village are changing — tourists are visiting, small businesses are on the rise and infrastructure, such as roads and electricity are now available.  The newly established Sauti Kuu project, the brainchild of Dr Auma, Obama’s sister, is testimony to a village and a locality in transformation.  As Auma clearly said, the project will benefit the youths of K’Ogelo, Siaya county and Kenya as a whole. 

This is as it should be.

It is President Obama who initiated the ‘Yes, Youth Can’ programme that has seen hundreds of Kenyan youth empowered politically and economically.  By 2012, the initiative had become so popular that some Kenyan leaders and politicians began to frustrate it.   In Parliament, a motion of censure against then US Ambassador Michael Renneberger was initiated to recall him over claims the ‘Yes, Youth Can’ programme was inciting youths to rebel against the government. 

It is President Obama who initiated the African Youth Leadership programme that has benefitted many Kenyan youths.    Julie Gichuru, the former popular Citizen TV anchor, is one of the beneficiaries that horned their leadership skills through this initiative.   

Obama did not initiate the Agoa and PEPFAR programmes, as Khalwale and Kuia rightly noted. Nevertheless, he ensured their continuation in Kenya and Africa throughout his two-term presidency.  Had Obama been a rogue President, he could have terminated them. 

Obama’s latest achievements were the bilateral agreements he signed with the Kenyan government when he visited in 2015.  Among other things, those agreements provide for collaboration in security, anti-terrorism and corruption — key issues hampering Kenya’s development.   A safer and secure environment are what Kenyans want in their pursuits for happiness.

Obama’s visits have also bolstered Kenya’s image abroad, which in turn, have boosted our tourism industry.  This week, Bobby Kamani, the managing director of the Diani Reef Beach Resort in Mombasa, confirmed that Obama’s visit in 2015 along with that of Pope Francis, greatly boosted tourism.  He expects a similar boost from Obama’s latest visit.   

These are some of the contributions Obama has made as President and as a private citizen.  Let his critics also play their part.


The writer worked as the media adviser at the American embassy when Obama visited Kenya in 2006 as Illinois senator




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