Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Obama Fantasy

Kenya’s fixation with Barack Obama represents a form of escapism for an African country beset by political dysfunction.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

On November 4 in Kenya, one might mistakenly conclude that Obama was running for president here and not in the United States. The city of Kisumu, home to Obama's ancestors in western Kenya, held mock voting from 8 a.m. in the morning. In Nairobi, at Kenyatta International Conference Centre, big-screen TVs showed reports on the American vote. And at the fashionable Nakamutt grocery store in downtown Nairobi, store clerks greeted their customers with a simple question: Did you vote for Obama?

Yet there is undeniably an over-the-top quality about Kenya's embrace of Obama. The government declared a national holiday to celebrate the Illinois senator's victory over John McCain. The National Theater is staging "Obama: The Musical," which explores the next presidents life through song. There are appeals for Kenya to officially petition the United States to become the 51st state. And the country is already making plans to host a visit from the president-elect, even though Obama hasnt indicated when, if ever, he will come.

Obamania in Kenya has gone on for years now, but the hype isnt just about the president-elect's roots. Rather, Kenya's Obama fixation seems to represent a kind of escapist fantasy for an African country beset by political dysfunctionality. Still raw with the memory of the electoral violence that left hundreds dead last spring, Kenya is thirsty for exactly the sort of change Obama represents. Indeed, the Illinois senator seems to possess everything that Kenya's political leaders lack: youthfulness, a conciliatory image, and the hope of transcending narrow ethnic identities in favor of a common national interest.

On November 4 in Kenya, one might mistakenly conclude that Obama was running for president here and not in the United States. The city of Kisumu, home to Obama’s ancestors in western Kenya, held mock voting from 8 a.m. in the morning. In Nairobi, at Kenyatta International Conference Centre, big-screen TVs showed reports on the American vote. And at the fashionable Nakamutt grocery store in downtown Nairobi, store clerks greeted their customers with a simple question: Did you vote for Obama?

Yet there is undeniably an over-the-top quality about Kenya’s embrace of Obama. The government declared a national holiday to celebrate the Illinois senator’s victory over John McCain. The National Theater is staging “Obama: The Musical,” which explores the next presidents life through song. There are appeals for Kenya to officially petition the United States to become the 51st state. And the country is already making plans to host a visit from the president-elect, even though Obama hasnt indicated when, if ever, he will come.

Obamania in Kenya has gone on for years now, but the hype isnt just about the president-elect’s roots. Rather, Kenya’s Obama fixation seems to represent a kind of escapist fantasy for an African country beset by political dysfunctionality. Still raw with the memory of the electoral violence that left hundreds dead last spring, Kenya is thirsty for exactly the sort of change Obama represents. Indeed, the Illinois senator seems to possess everything that Kenya’s political leaders lack: youthfulness, a conciliatory image, and the hope of transcending narrow ethnic identities in favor of a common national interest.

To grasp why the Obama fascination in Kenya came to be, return to January of this year, when the country suffered through the worst post-election violence in its 45-year history. A political bargain ended the crisis but failed to address the enmity between rival factions and ethnic groups here. Current Prime Minister Raila Odinga garnered much of his support from the Luo ethnic group, which remains deeply suspicious of the country’s dominant Kikuyu, led by President Mwai Kibaki. And the skepticism runs both ways.

In a country where most political elites are over 60 but half the population is under 20 years old, Obama’s youth and his message of unity has a strong appeal. As one writer to the East African newspaper observed Monday, the old boys of Kenyan politics should be swept aside, replaced by a new generation. Younger Kenyans, wrote B. Amaya of Nairobi, should emulate Obama in order to change the tribal nature of our politics.

The senator’s presidential victory offers an obvious lesson about diversity: The United States has done the unthinkable in electing a non-white president. Could Kenyans learn to embrace their own ethnic differences? Odinga has indicated that Obama’s victory means such reconciliation is possible. If Obama can win, and get endorsements from the whites, he said shortly before the election, then why should an all-black country like Kenya have its citizens fighting each other?

But even if Obama is a model to emulate, could his presidency really change the political reality in Kenya? After all, the country’ s political strife dates back far longer than this years flawed elections. Governance and advantage often fall along ethnic lines, depending on who is in charge. Official corruption remains high even by African standards, even under the current power-sharing compromise. Kibaki and Odinga are past masters at the game of ethnic patronage, exhibiting little stomach for the kind of transformational change espoused by Obama. Both men publicly deplore ethnic violence, yet neither seems eager to examine how to reconcile the ethnic clusters that jockey for position in a society deeply divided between haves and have-nots. Both stand accused, for instance, of opposing efforts to identify and prosecute organizers of ethnic violence, and the independent commission that made this recommendation last week is now in limbo.

The incoming Obama administration could push for more from Kenya’s leaders — and there is a strong case for doing so. Kenya is home to the largest U.S. embassy in Africa and borders tumultuous Somalia, a known staging ground for terrorist activity. Islamic terrorist networks are also believed to operate in Kenya, making internal security issues of strategic interest to the United States. Yet many in Kenya and the international community insist that only a thorough internal reckoning can guarantee that the country wont fall prey to similar ethnic violence in months to come.

Obama’s victory is undoubtedly a huge boost to a battered nations pride and an example of what the country’s sons might achieve outside Kenya’s tense political landscape. But instead of merely celebrating Obama’s success, Kenya would do well to follow the advice he offered during his trip to the country in 2006, and envision their own country the way they wish it to be seen from afar.

“I can say that from the perspective of the U.S., they look at Kenya and all they see is Kenya,” Obama told the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group at the time. “They dont pay attention to Luo and Kamba and Kikuyu and Maasai and so on. If people start taking a global perspective, they will begin to realize that Kenya cant afford to be divided like this.”

Then, maybe Kenya’s Obama dreams will come true.

G. Pascal Zachary, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, teaches at Arizona State University and is the editor of the blog Africa Works.

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