WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Former US President Barack Obama, emerging from partial seclusion more than six months after leaving office, weighed in Monday (Aug 7) about the tense political situation - not in the United States, but in his father's home country, Kenya.
Obama, who has largely stayed out of the fierce debates that have consumed the United States since President Donald Trump took over in January, opted to speak out about the hotly contested presidential election scheduled for Tuesday in Kenya, where voting in recent years has been followed by violence.
"I urge Kenyan leaders to reject violence and incitement; respect the will of the people; urge security forces to act professionally and neutrally; and work together no matter the outcome," he said in a statement. "I urge all Kenyans to work for an election - and aftermath - that is peaceful and credible, reinforcing confidence in your new constitution and the future of your country. Any disputes around the election should be resolved peacefully, through Kenya's institutions and the rule of law." Few voices from outside Kenya could resonate more powerfully than that of Obama, whose father, Barack Obama Sr, was a Kenyan student who met and married Stanley Ann Dunham in Hawaii but left about a year after their son was born.
As president, Obama in 2015 made a high-profile visit to Kenya, where he was celebrated as the country's most famous son even as he urged the country to fortify its fragile democracy, tackle corruption, overcome ethnic divisions and protect human rights.
The campaign that ends Tuesday has produced little evidence that Kenya has heeded his advice. In recent days, the campaign has been marked by a break-in at the vice president's country estate, the killing and possible torture of a senior election official, and reports of plans to rig the vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta and stage an armed raid on one of the opposition's tallying centers. Talk of "fake news" has flavored the campaign debate as international observers, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, seek to ensure a fair vote.
Obama expressed disappointment in the campaign.
"In Kenya's election we have already seen too much incitement and appeals based on fear from all sides," he said. "But I also know that the Kenyan people as a whole will be the losers if there is a descent into violence. You can make clear that you will reject those that want to deal in tribal and ethnic hatred." A violent reaction seems like a real possibility given Kenya's recent history. After a disputed election in 2007 in which the opposition leader Raila Odinga lost, spasms of violence left at least 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced from their homes. In 2013, after Odinga lost again, this time to Kenyatta, he claimed he had been robbed of victory.
Odinga, a former prime minister, is running again, his fourth campaign for the presidency, and he and Kenyatta were virtually tied in recent polls. In a country riven by tribal rivalries, Kenyatta, 55, has the support of many Kikuyus and Kalenjins, while Odinga, 72, is strong among the Luos, Luhyas and Kambas.
Obama, whose father was Luo, urged Kenyans to put those divisions aside. "The choices you make in the coming days can either set Kenya back or bring it together," he said. "As a friend of the Kenyan people, I urge you to work for a future defined not by fear and division, but by unity and hope." Analysts said many Kenyans would pay attention, even if there are limits to Obama's influence.
"Will Obama's statement shift behaviors in Kenya? No," said William M. Bellamy, a former ambassador to Kenya who is now a professor of international relations at Simmons College. "But it provides a basis for judging the success or failure of these elections."
The standard set by the president and international observers, he added, "will have a big impact on how Kenyans themselves assess the validity of their elections."
The former president's decision to speak out on Kenya's election was a striking departure from his general approach since leaving the White House. He has remained largely out of the issues in Washington as Trump seeks to unravel much of his predecessor's legacy. Although Obama has issued written statements at critical moments in the debate over replacing his health care programme, he has for the most part left it to his former advisers and other Democrats to wage a rear-guard battle on behalf of his programs and policies.
"President Obama has a unique stature in Kenya and has issued similar statements about past Kenyan elections," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Obama. "The stakes are enormously high as there is a grave risk of violence and instability around the election, and it's important for the Kenyan people to hear his voice at this pivotal moment."