Kenyans to Obama: Stick it to our idiotic government

I fully expected Kenya’s honeymoon affair with America to end when the Obama administration dropped the threat of a travel ban on numerous Kenyan politicians alleging they had stood in the way of reform. Here was the superpower trying to dictate local politics.

Instead, according to most of the locals I spoke to, Obama had won points, rather than lost them.

Kenyans for decades have labored under corrupt regime after corrupt regime since independence from the British in 1963. Even the country’s celebrated first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, is considered to have been corrupt. And don’t get me started on Daniel arap Moi. His legacy of gutting the constitution lingers today; so does his plundering the treasury (and really the economy).

Even the new “grand coalition” unity government — the two presidential candidates in late 2007 couldn’t decide who won and their respective constituencies rioted, forcing power “sharing” — gets mixed reviews for its performance on corruption. This week that the anti-corruption chief finally stepped down amid international and domestic pressure.

It’s with that backdrop that average Kenyans have largely written off their local government and Africa’s stable, quasi-Democratic gem is actually, according to its average Kenyan critic citizen, a autocracy of men in suits ruling people who don’t really care about them and wish they’d simply shut up.

This is the opinion I’ve gotten — usually off-the-record — from every cabbie, NGO, businessman, street vendor, hotel staff, bar girl, train attendant, working stiff, lawyer, activist and villager I’ve spoken to.

Kakuta ole Maimai, however, was totally comfortable being quoted in his low opinion of the government.

“Most of the time, I have learned to simply shut my ears,” Maimai said. “The government doesn’t nothing for me so I think nothing of it. They are just stupid.”

Nothing, perhaps, except marginalize his tribe, the Maasai. Mamai is the founder of the Maasai Association, an NGO that advocates for the small-but-famous tribe.

(He doesn’t count as the average Kenyan — he spends about half his year in the U.S., where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees — but he speaks out, in part because his education and standing in the U.S. allows him to more safely criticize.)

He laughed when the topic of the travel ban came up. “I hope Obama continues to be strict with Kenya. We need it. The politicians might not like it, but the people do. This government needs (Obama) to be tough.”

Then we discussed Kenyatta and Moi, and now Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. “Kenya needs major reform. We’ve had the same corrupt politicians for our history.”

He points to what he sees as the latest boondoggle to hurt the Maasai (who are suffering due to prolonged drought, which I’ve been reporting on). In light of mass starvation of cattle among pastoral communities, the Kenyan Meat Commission –  in essence, a government-run slaughter house — was given money to purchase starving cattle from local populations, lest they die anyway and rot.

Maasai rejoiced and drove their sickly cows — culturally a part of their identity, treated like children — to slaughter, only to watch them held in pens. Because the KMC didn’t want to pay out to anyone except its usual contract customers who offer kickbacks.

So tens of thousands of cattle died. This is of course Maimai’s take, but I get agreement from most people I talk to, as well as the local press.

The kicker: The KMC wants the Maasai to now pay for both transport and burial of the dead cattle.

The U.S. travel ban, Maimai said, seems like a small bit of justice.

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2 Responses to “Kenyans to Obama: Stick it to our idiotic government”

  1. Royal Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Doesn’t seem like a travel ban on a dozen or so pols could be too effective. How about stiff economic sanctions?

  2. Adam Jadhav Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Welcome to symbolic diplomacy. Though it took a week or so for the anti-corruption chief to be sacked. A response maybe?

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