obama in kenya

In advance of the rapidly approaching Kenyan election, President Obama has recorded a video addressing Kenyan voters. Obama spent a few seconds in rheumy-eyed reminiscence of good times in Nairobi before getting into the meat of his message: come March 4th, Kenya, do not take it to the streets. Kenyans should forgo the pre and post-election violence of 2007, and put their faith in the rule of law to settle disputes. Obama’s statement has been welcomed by current PM Raila Odinga, and presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.

As ever when the U.S. starts addressing ‘developing nations’, the issue is paternalism. Rather than an equal “brother”, the President comes across as a patronising uncle with a proclivity for yelling high-pitched Swahili greetings and patting lil’uns on the head. The speech settles into its infantalising groove around the .50 second mark when Obama kicks off with the three things “Kenyans must” do, before informing voters that “This election can be another milestone towards a truly democratic Kenya”, the word “milestone” recalling the language of baby books. Sitting flanked by the stars and stripes, Obama (and the U.S.) are presumably at the end of the “path to progress” down which Kenya is plodding like the proverbial tortoise. “Come on slowpoke,” the U.S. beckons, “do this one right, and you can join the big boys.”

The underlying assumption is not only that Obama knows what a “truly democratic” nation looks like, but that America is that nation, and African countries (always on African-time) must scramble their way towards an already established ideal. Even ignoring the U.S’s recent sketchy election, the taint of big money makes the idea of the U.S. as a ‘perfected democracy’ hard to swallow. In the UK (another nation prone to thinking the sun shines out its arse), the Leveson report revealed massive corruption and a tight-knit ruling elite. And while we’re talking nepotism and vested power, America’s tolerance (and even affection) for its political dynasties (the Bushes; the Kennedy’s etc.) is plain weird.

The point? African countries are not slowly maturing from ‘childhood’ into ‘adulthood’, but rapidly shifting and changing just like every nation on earth. It’s time to put to bed that tired linear logic in which Africans are told to step out of savagery (fighting at election-time) and into civilization (quietly accepting big money and nepotism as politics as usual). And maybe Obama should have acknowledged the incentive for the U.S. to stay in cahoots with whichever candidate is eventually elected: the war Kenya is waging against Al Shabaab in northern Somalia.

Alas, the “path to progress” is lined with speeches like these:



3 Replies to "Obama To Kenyans: Behave During Elections! (Or Else)"
February 8, 2013 at 1:16 am

As much as I like critical articles, I guess this article completeley forgets the Kenyan voice. I always wonder how one could speak on behalf of a whole nation without mentioning the peoples’ voice. In fact, many Kenyans endorsed the video message. The video was surely the mostly shared video in the last days in Kenyan Social media. Following the developments in pre-election time and remembering what Kenyan went through after the 2007 elections, such messages are welcome by the Kenyan people and ensures the people that, this time, the international community, will have a look on the politicians.


    Derica Shields says:
    February 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    thanks for your comment JusiILove. Obviously I don’t want there to be election violence in Kenya. My piece addresses the wider cultural dynamic whereby Western nations think it’s a-ok to tell nations of the Global South what to do.

    I was aware that folks were mostly in favour of Obama’s statement, if anything, the broad support was what prompted my decision to outline the reasons for my dislike. That said, the idea that I’m attempting to ‘speak on the behalf of a whole nation’ is off the mark; whether you mean Kenya or the U.S., that’s neither what I’m attempting nor what I claim to be doing in the piece. More broadly, I don’t think much of the idea of speaking for a nation’. It’d be nuts to essentialize: Kenyans are bound by a nation, not a single consciousness.

    If you’re interested in engaging ‘Kenyan voices’ on this then Keguro Macharia very beautifully unpacks how developmental & colonial logics come to inform discussions of democracy in Africa (http://gukira.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/karibu-kenya/). His writing has really helped me think about these questions.

    On your last point, that Obama’s address was intended to encourage international scrutiny. If the U.S. was interested in organizing oversight of the Kenyan election then the ICC would be the obvious way to go, but – of course – the U.S. isn’t a signatory to the ICC (which has a warrant on Uhuru et al). I think the ICC’s penchant for African leaders is very problematic, but I’m not okay with the U.S standing outside international law and making grand speeches either.

Maureen says:
February 12, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Okay Africa I love that the article covered what most would otherwise like to overlook and concentrate on what the tin states. Yes Obama has addressed the Kenyan citizen but his voice was not needed not everyone is waiting on the rest of the world to justify the political choices that are made within their nation. Also as much as the article did not address the people who were “excited” about the message @jusiIlove went toward the opposite extreme and only acknowledge the individuals that were pleased about the address.

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