Interview: Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga

CHICAGO — It was a study in contrasts for a once stalwart American ally: There was Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga in Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago last Thursday. He had been invited to speak to a business group by the city’s Council on Global Affairs.

On that very same day, as Odinga was talking up the future of Kenya’s economy in the Windy City, Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete was at the Oval Office meeting with President Obama — the first African head of state to do so.

Odinga’s U.S. visit also included a stop at the University of Buffalo to address the law school, but a meeting with Obama in Washington wasn’t in the cards. It appeared to be a snub to the Kenyan leader.

Since Obama’s inauguration in January, Kenya has enjoyed the status as the country where the new U.S. president’s father was born. Odinga himself recently claimed he’s Obama’s cousin, though that has not been officially confirmed.

But all is not well with Kenya’s “special relationship” with the Obama administration. Not only was Odinga not welcomed in Washington, even to meet a few officials, but a few days before Odinga’s U.S. trip, Obama announced that his first visit to Africa as president would be not to Kenya, but to Ghana, a country that recently held successful elections and had a peaceful transfer of power.

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So where does that put Kenya, a longtime East Africa power player and U.S. ally? Not in the White House; more like the dog house.

Right now, Odinga admits Kenya has some work to do to get back into Washington’s good graces. He says the relationship is “fairly cordial.”

“I don’t think our relationships have deteriorated in any kind of extent,” he told GlobalPost in a sit-down interview during his Chicago stop. He says Kenya is being advised by its “good friend” the U.S. to “increase the pace [of reforms], otherwise there’s danger coming.”

Kenya’s prime minister says the United States is helping with health and food aid and the two countries are working together to stop the piracy threat in East Africa’s coastal waters.

The strained relations have been evident since the deadly riots and street violence that took place in Kenya in late December 2007 and the early part of 2008 in the aftermath of a presidential election gone wrong between Odinga and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.

Early returns and exit polls projected Odinga as the winner, but once the election was over, Kibaki had apparently won by more than 200,000 votes, to the surprise of many local and international observers.

That sent Odinga supporters out onto the streets to protest what they saw as a fraudulent vote tally. In response Kibaki’s military police squads used strong-arm tactics to quell the violence.

Mayhem ensued for the next few weeks, resulting in some 1,300 people dead and the image of Kenya — a tourist beacon with a reputation for stability — severely tarnished.

Under international pressure to control the chaos, the two rival politicians in February 2008 forged a power-sharing deal at the behest of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After a few more months of haggling over the details, Odinga was officially named prime minister in April 2008, with Kibaki continuing as president.

But trouble may be brewing yet again in Kenya. Police and judicial reforms have been slow to take hold, Odinga admits, and reports of corruption by both Odinga and Kibaki are rampant.

There are also signs that the power-sharing arrangement isn’t working. Observers say the government is plagued by inertia. Odinga complains he’s being left out of the decision-making process and is proposing structural changes that give the power to run the government to the prime minister, with the president handling foreign policy and defense.

“It is not that there is anything wrong with the structure that has been introduced,” says Odinga. “It is only the resistance by those that have been there not to respect [it].”

Kibaki’s contingent, for its part, has accused the Odinga crowd of fomenting a coup, a charge Odinga himself is all too familiar with. The son of Kenya’s first post-independence vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the prime minister spent most of the 1980s in prison for allegedly plotting a coup against Kenya’s ruler at the time, the dictator Daniel arap Moi.

Things have reached a point where Johnnie Carson, the former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and now the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, made a trip to the country earlier in May to deliver a stern warning to the co-leaders that changes need to be made. He was quoted in Kenya’s Daily Nation saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned and worried whether the events of the last several weeks were again a prelude to a round of instability,” adding that “political tensions must not be allowed to turn into a political crisis, and a political crisis must not be allowed to turn into political violence.”

Carson’s words were straightforward: “We came here to warn a friend about our concerns.” It is clear that instead of letting Kenya bask in a special glow because it is the ancestral fatherland of Obama, the new U.S. president is showing that he knows the situation in Kenya well and he intends to hold the country to high standards of democracy and economic management.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Kenya:

Kenya angered by killing

New wave of elephant poaching in Kenya

Recession worsens Kenyan famine