Joe Biden brings tough love to Kenya

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.”

Biden began with soft praise for Kenya’s, “human capital … the skill, ingenuity and determination of its people,” and its stability in a “very tough neighborhood.” But he soon moved onto rougher ground.

“Too many of your resources have been lost to corruption, and not a single high-level official has ever been held accountable for these crimes,” Biden told the audience. “Too many times, Kenya has been divided against itself, torn apart by ethnic tensions, manipulated by leaders who place their own interests above the interests of their country.”

With a vote due in August on a new constitution that will strip some powers from the presidency, there are hopes that much-needed change might at last come to Kenya’s sclerotic political system.

The current setup places so much power in the hands of the Kenyan president that politics since independence has been what analysts call a “zero sum game": winner takes all and uses power to repay loyal — often ethnic — supporters, while losers get nothing.

“Fostering the kind of change that is at hand is not up to the political elites, it’s up to you. It’s up to the Kenyan people,” Biden urged. “And as you prepare to write a new history for your nation, resist those who try to divide you based on ethnicity or religion or region and, above all, fear is a tool as old as mankind, and it’s been used with great effect in this country in the past.”

Biden’s agenda was not just Kenyan. He also met with the recently re-elected president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, in order to reiterate American support for a referendum due in January 2011 that
is likely to see Africa’s largest country split in two.

The referendum is the endgame of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which the U.S. played a key role in brokering and which brought an end to decades of civil war.

But as next year’s vote approaches fears are rising that secession might trigger a new round of North-South fighting because Khartoum is loathe to lose control over the south and the vast oil wealth upon which it depends. Biden acknowledged the “serious threats” to the South’s security and affirmed U.S. support to the southern military.

Somalia was also high on the agenda, for both the U.S. and for Kenya which feels increasingly threatened by the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents that roam across the lengthy border.

Biden met with the United Nation’s top diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, as well as senior officials and commanders of the African Union peacekeeping mission to Mogadishu which protects the weak Western-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

The vice president wound up his trip with a visit to one of Kenya’s many national parks before flying out to South Africa.

Joe Biden is not Barack Obama and the U.S. president’s absence still smarts here, but this week’s visit reminded Kenyans that their most famous son is closely watching his father’s country.