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Opinion: Obama right to press Kenya to reform

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

“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, Council on Foreign Relations' website.