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Opinion: Obama right to press Kenya to reform

International community should support Washington's pressure on Nairobi government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki arrive at the opening of the eighth Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) Forum in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Aug. 5, 2009. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

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.