Opinion: Obama right to press Kenya to reform

BUNGOMA, Kenya — Not much has changed politically in Kenya since the violent clashes that erupted after the December 2007 presidential election and the power-sharing agreement that ended them in February 2008.

Most of the reforms the power-sharing government agreed to implement have yet to materialize. The two factions appear more interested in fighting over who should run things than in getting things done.

This failure to govern is the subject of daily headlines in the Kenyan newspapers, but the slow unfurling of a country is not something that tends to receive much international attention, either from the media or diplomats — there always seem to be more immediate crises to deal with.

However, there is one country watching Kenya closely.

In a strategy that is unusually forward-thinking, the United States has taken an increasingly hard line with Kenya’s leadership. Over the past nine months, U.S. President Barack Obama's government has regularly reminded Kenya — in rhetoric and action — that Washington is not going to ignore Nairobi's lack of progress on political reform.

The strong U.S. stance should not be surprising. Obama's father was Kenyan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband have demonstrated a long-standing commitment to African affairs.

In August 2009, Hillary Clinton visited Kenya to attend a meeting on U.S.-Africa trade. She delivered an uncompromising message.

“The absence of strong and effective democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence, human rights abuses, and a lack of respect for the rule of law,” she said in a press conference, as Kenya’s foreign minister stood by. Later that day, Clinton told a group at the University of Nairobi that “the government has to reform itself if Kenya will be all it can be.”

The next month, the top State Department official for Africa, Johnnie Carson, sent letters to 15 high-level political figures in Kenya warning them that their relationships with Washington would be jeopardized unless they supported political reform. The letters also stated that the U.S. could block Kenya’s request for aid from international financial institutions.

Among the 15 were the justice minister and the attorney general. In late October, Carson took concrete action, revoking the visa of Attorney General Amos Wako and threatening to revoke the visas of three others.

“During his term of office as attorney general he has not successfully prosecuted one, not a single senior government official,” Carson told a press briefing in February. “He seems to be able to find the stockroom clerk, but he cannot find the senior officials who are there.”

During Wako’s 15 years as attorney general, Kenya has seen two monumental corruption scandals that touched the highest levels of government: the billion-dollar Goldenberg scandal and the Anglo-Leasing scandal, which cost the Kenyan people between $150 million and $200 million.

Corruption has undermined the trust that Kenyans should be able to have in their public institutions. Without a reduction in corruption, it’s hard to imagine significant improvements in the country’s political or economic climate.

Yet Kenya needs many things to tilt its political see-saw toward stability, including a new constitution, a revamped judiciary and a reformed police. While all are necessary, a new constitution should facilitate other institutional changes. It has the potential to break the executive branch’s stranglehold on the government, which would reduce corruption as well as increase its prosecution.

The U.S. recognizes the importance of a new Kenyan constitution. In January, Obama and Clinton called Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to encourage them to move the reform process forward and to adopt a new constitution.

The U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, has been equally firm. In a January speech in Nairobi, he decried high-level corruption, singling out recent scandals within the Ministry of Education. “Those culpable for the fraud should not merely be sacked; they should be prosecuted and put behind bars,” he said.

The U.S. emphasized its point by withdrawing some aid. The U.S. was slated to give $7 million over five years to Kenya’s Ministry of Education but now the aid has been suspended. Washington continues to send other aid money, including hundreds of millions for an HIV/AIDS program, but the suspension of any aid at all sends a strong message to Kenyan leaders.

Kenya is closer to the brink than most people realize. The U.S. diplomatic strategy in Kenya should be recognized for its prescience, and beyond that, should be followed by other actors who wield influence in Kenya. This strategy is the best chance the world has of preventing another outbreak of violence during the 2012 elections.

The U.S. is laser focused on what Kenya needs to ensure future stability — a reduction in corruption, institutional reform and a new constitution. But Washington is just one of the voices with influence in Kenya. Other voices — from the U.N. to the British government to the World Bank — must join to turn the message into a chorus.

Stephanie Hanson is director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization in Kenya. From 2006 to 2009, she covered economic and political development in Africa and Latin America for CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations' website.