Like everything else in Kenya these days, the victory of Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee has split public opinion into two even as the rest of Africa celebrates.
Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. His win is drawing mixed reactions in Kenya due to ethnic politics.
The Senator from Illinois made history by becoming the first African American to win the presidential ticket on a major US political party. There was joy across the black diaspora, from North America, the Caribbean and the African motherland itself. In Kenya though, local political dynamics mean that close to half of Kenyans actually dread the prospects of an Obama presidency.
Senator Obama’s father was a Kenyan from the Luo tribe which resides around Lake Victoria. In Kenya’s general elections held in December last year, the Luo supported Raila Odinga and the ODM party against President Mwai Kibaki and the PNU party. Kibaki got votes from Central and Eastern Kenya mostly from his Kikuyu tribe. The elections were so close that disputes over the actual winner degenerated into political and ethnic violence that left 1,500 dead and half a million refugees.
During the worst of the violence early this year, Senator Obama who was engrossed in campaigning for the primaries issued a statement calling on Kenyans to unite for the sake of progress.
International mediation resulted in a giant coalition government with Kibaki as president and Raila as prime minister. Inspite of the peace deal, ethnic tensions still simmer.
Obama’s victory in the United States is being interpreted in Kenya for its possible implications on the political landscape. The Luo feel that an Obama presidency will help develop their area and provide jobs to the youth. They also believe that an Obama presidency will boost the chances for Prime Minister Raila to ascend to the presidency in the near future. Indeed, Raila himself has alluded that he and Obama are distant cousins.
Because of these hopes, the Kikuyu fear that should Obama win the US presidency, the Luo and Prime Minister Raila will gain a significant edge in influencing American policy towards Kenya. The US has veto power in the United Nations and controls the policies of the World Bank and IMF. The US provides Kenya with millions of dollars in military aid. Thus, a US president that identifies with Prime Minister Raila Odinga could portend declining fortunes for Kibaki and his Kikuyu tribe.
Senator Obama was in Kenya in 2006 where he criticized President Kibaki’s government for corruption. President Kibaki and his supporters viewed the criticism as an endorsement of Raila. Since then, Obama has kept mum over Kenya’s political developments.