Obama’s Strong Words for Kenya Are Welcome. But It’s Too Little, Too Late

The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, usually bristles at any criticism of his government from the west. Since taking office in March 2013 – defying calls from Washington and London not to contest the presidency because he was facing charges at the international criminal court at the time – he has deepened ties with China while launching rhetorical attacks on what he calls western “imperial exploiter(s)”. Yet Barack Obama, who came to Kenya last week with strong words on the need to battle corruption, empower women, respect gay rights and drop outdated practices such as female genital mutilation, was treated decidedly differently. His frank discussion of the problems that bedevil the country would ordinarily have drawn a hostile reception from the government and its supporters. Instead, his address to the nation at a sports arena on Sunday has been met with only gushing praise from broad sections of the public and media. Yet the fact that Obama has only really engaged the continent in these frank terms towards the end of his time in office on what is clearly a farewell tour is a source of regret. The bully pulpit that is the US presidency, especially at a time when it is occupied by a man of African descent, would have been a powerful forum to try to nudge African leaders in the right direction. Instead, especially in his first term, Obama was largely disengaged from Africa, although that could have had something to do with not wanting to offer extra oxygen to the birther movement.