US election: a Kenyan perspective

Kenyans look up to Barack Obama, whom they consider to be their most prominent "son" - but his first four years in office have fallen slightly short of their expectations.

Of all African countries, Kenya clearly stands out as the most interested in this year’s US presidential election, for President Obama traces his roots to Kenya. The president’s father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Kenyan native and a long term civil servant. One could easily conclude that Kenyans have an automatic blind loyalty to the Obama presidency: this view is supported by the fact that some schools and roads in rural Kenya have already been named after the American president. The mainstream media on its part has run an obviously one-sided coverage of the presidential campaign, with President Obama enjoying unparalleled attention.

However, whereas one would be quick to assume that Kenya is 100 percent pro-Obama, local political scenarios have made some factions view a second Obama presidency with both suspicion and fear. This is directly linked to the Kenya post-election violence of 2007/2008 that has seen the indictment of prominent Kenyan personalities by the Hague International Criminal Court (ICC). Among the suspects are Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of Kenya’s first president) and charismatic former cabinet minister William Samoei Ruto. But these two ICC suspects have expressed their interest in running for the Kenyan presidency in March next year, despite the crimes against humanity charges they face at the Hague. The Obama administration, through its Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has hinted that voting international high-profile suspects into power would greatly affect Kenya’s standing in the international arena.

This hasn’t gone down well with the duo’s numerous supporters, who accuse the US of interference into Kenya’s internal affairs by attempting to curtail or discourage their presidential ambitions. In Kenya’s deeply tribalised political context, some politicians have even accused the Obama administration of favouring the candidature of current Prime Minister Raila Odinga in next year elections (both Odinga and Obama’s father hail from the same ethnic community/tribe). This has thus made some Kenyans warm up to the Romney camp. Also, many Kenyans have been deeply disappointed by the fact that in his four-year presidency, Obama hasn’t even visited Kenya once: the only time he came to Africa he opted to go to Ghana and Egypt instead (though Obama has been to Kenya before, as a student and later as a senator to visit his half-sister, -brothers and grandmother).

However, the candidature of President Obama remains popular in Kenya. Kenyans are in fact persuaded that Obama shall make history as the first American president in exercise to visit the country. Also, it is not lost on Kenyans that Osama bin Laden, who is responsible for the Nairobi embassy bombing that killed 212 and injured over 4,000 in 1998, has been brought to what many perceive as justice under the Obama presidency.

The fact that Obama, whose father was never an American citizen, rose to become the country's leader is an inspiring example on a continent where countries such as Zambia have it clearly stipulated in their constitutions that the presidency is a preserve of only those whose both parents are citizens by birth - a common concept throughout Africa. That Obama could be elected in “foreign” land on the sole merit of his ideas has made local politics in Kenya to revolve more around concrete issues, as opposed to old quarrels about tribal affiliations - to the extent that Kenyans are set to have their first ever national televised presidential debate in a couple of weeks. And Kenyans also appreciate the fact that it is during his time in office that the world has experienced the so-called Arab Spring, when democracy has largely been embraced by the Arab world – an increasingly important trading partner for Kenya.

All in all, while Kenyans have no direct influence on who the next occupant of the White House shall be, they remain glued to their TV sets, awaiting the victory of their most prominent “son”: Barack Obama. 

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

About the author

Alan Masakhalia is a 30 year old Kenyan currently working as Lead Consultant at Alarnies Development Consultants in Nairobi.

He is a seasoned political scientist currently serving as Country Representative of Democracy International Germany.

He has written several papers for Democracy International on African political issues in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Tanzania.