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Joe Biden brings tough love to Kenya

US Veep urges reform on visit to Nairobi. Kenyans still want Obama to come.

Joe Biden and Wangari Maathai in Kenya
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) greets Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi on his visit to Kenya on June 9, 2010. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya edged a little closer this week to its cherished dream of a personal visit by United States President Barack Obama, idolized by Kenyans who regard him as a native son because his father was born and grew up here and many of his close relatives still call the country home.

Vice President Joe Biden visited Kenya this week, and many here took Biden's visit as helping pave the way for a visit by Obama.

During a two-day visit Biden brought with him a now familiar message of tough love that has been delivered from the White House by a series of officials, including top Africa diplomat Johnnie Carson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Washington's ambassador to Nairobi, Michael Ranneberger.

In private meetings and public addresses Biden reiterated U.S. support for Kenya, East Africa’s economic powerhouse and a loyal ally against the chaos in neighboring Somalia.

But he also emphasized the pressing need to fight widespread corruption and to implement political reforms to avoid a rerun of the violence that followed the last elections in 2007.

More than 1,100 people died in weeks of ethnic violence sparked by a disputed result in late 2007. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is investigating the violence between
supporters of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga — then opponents, now partners in a fractious coalition government — and expects the court to issue indictments later this year for some senior politicians, even cabinet ministers.

It was an opportunistic stopover for Biden who was flying from Middle East talks in Egypt to the soccer World Cup in South Africa. Kenya is conveniently equidistant but his visit nevertheless allowed him to push the U.S. agendas for Kenya and the region.

“Hello my name is Joe Biden. I work for Barack Obama,” he said to laughs and applause from the audience crowded into the Kenya International Convention Centre in central Nairobi on Wednesday

“He sends his love to you,” he added, in response to a comment from Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai who had asked Biden to tell Obama, “we love him.”