By Charo Fondo
DURING his visit to Mombasa a few weeks ago, the US Ambassador, Mr Michael Ranneberger, gave an address titled ‘Democracy, Diversity and Development’.
Towards the end of this speech, he referred to a number of “American experiences that may shed light on the challenges Kenyans face”.
It was when he got to the fifth such experience that he mentioned something that has since proved to be the only thing many remember about that speech.
His exact words were: “Fifth, the US and Kenyan experiences highlight the generally positive impact of generational change on the evolution of democratic societies.”
Seen in isolation like that, this statement seems uncontroversial enough. But it was clarified even further when he added: “In coming years — note that I am not referring to this election — the generational change under way in Kenya will provide opportunities to enhance the democratic system by dealing more boldly and effectively with three of the great challenges confronting it: the need to overcome tribally-based politics, corruption and gender inequity”.
I quote from this speech at length merely to leave no doubt in any reader’s mind that this was nothing more than the sort of thing you would expect a well-informed diplomat from a friendly nation to say. It is what many Kenyan political leaders have repeated over and over again, in different ways and at different times.
But in this case, these words soon acquired a power of their own, because they were interpreted by some within President Kibaki’s re-election campaign team as a clear sign that the US proposes to throw its weight behind the President’s most formidable (and younger) challenger, Mr Raila Odinga.
That so much could be made of so little; that this speech, significant as it admittedly was, should have been assessed in such detail and finally misrepresented so completely, raises an interesting question: What does this tell us about that campaign?
For not only was this misinterpreted statement taken as cause for offence by some campaigning for the President’s re-election, but it led directly to a demonstration in Nairobi. The protest ended at the memorial park dedicated to those who lost their lives during the 1998 terrorist bombing of the US Embassy, where a US flag was burnt by the protestors.
Psychology of the average voter
One question it poses is this: Is it really possible for a foreign power to determine the outcome of our General Elections? If, indeed, the US or any other country wanted to impose ‘generational change’ in this country, or even ‘regime change’, could they do this at will, and without openly invading the country to overthrow the Government? Could such a change be brought about simply through influencing an election?
Let us consider the psychology of the average voter: As that man or woman lines up to vote, can we really say that they are oppressed by a sense of futility, believing that the outcome does not depend on them casting a vote, but rather on decisions already made by some powerful outsiders as to who will be the next President of Kenya?
Far from this, the 2002 General Election showed clearly that Kenyan voters deeply resented the assumption on the part of former President Moi, that it was up to him to select his successor.
So, if the Kenyan voter certainly does not feel threatened by outside forces, how do we explain the reaction of some parts of President Kibaki’s re-election team to the Ambassador’s speech? I would say that it shows a striking lack of confidence as well as laziness by these campaigners. It reveals serious doubt in their minds that their candidate will prevail in the presidential election.
Walking down a Nairobi street and burning an American flag is easy. Conducting a serious grassroots campaign is hard work. As they obviously prefer the easy option.
What should be even more worrying to those who wish to see President Kibaki re-elected, is that this tendency by his supporters to accuse the US of all manner of evil, seems to be a growing trend. Consider the recent incident in which the Minister for Labour, Dr Newton Kulundu, declared that Britain and the United States were the world’s leading offenders in matters of human rights.
Both in tone and content, those off-the-cuff remarks seemed more like a settling of scores, and a continuation of the hostility towards the US that has come to characterise some of the President’s supporters.
The writer is a Mombasa businessman