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The Leader of the Free World has just completed his first post-election visit to Kenya, the land of his father. For Barack Obama, it must have felt like being in a timewarp. His hometown of Chicago, once the most corrupt city in the US, emerged from the grip of gangsters and grafters almost a century ago to a new, flourishing future. Obama urged Kenyans to follow that example and reap the benefits. He reckons corruption costs the Kenyan economy 250 000 jobs a year. As Kenyan GDP is about one sixth the size of South Africa’s, using Obama’s calculations would put SA’s annual corruption-based job losses at a staggering 1.5m. Even if that’s an exaggeration, the message is clear. Until the corruption curse is attacked with vigour rather than empty words , SA’s economy will never achieve anything like its true potential. – Alec Hogg
NAIROBI, July 26 (ANA) – United States President Barack Obama pulled no punches on Sunday when he criticised Kenya’s corruption, inequality and tribalism before a packed audience of about 6,000 people which included President Uhuru Kenyatta and his cabinet in one of Nairobi’s largest indoor arenas.
Obama quoted a study showing that every year corruption cost East Africa’s biggest economy 250,000 jobs. He said rising prosperity in the economy was leaving out the vast majority of the people.
Kenyatta, his ministers, members of Parliament, civil society and hundreds of specially invited guests heard Obama admonish the current leadership of the country and urged them to make “tough choices”.
“Ultimately we are each responsible for our own destiny….I’m here as a friend who wants Kenya to succeed and the pillars of that success are clear – strong democratic governments, development that provides opportunities for all people and not just some, a sense of national identity, to reject conflict, for a future of peace and reconciliation.
“We can see this future for Kenyan on the horizon but tough choices are going to have to be made to arrive at the destination,” said Obama speaking on the final day of his three-day trip, just before he jetted out of Nairobi for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
This was his first trip to Kenya, the birthplace of his father, since he became president in 2009.
Obama said corruption was “the biggest impediment to Kenya’s economic growth”, saying that economic growth had not always been broadly shared. Sometimes people at the top did very well but ordinary people still struggled.
“Today a young child in Nyanza province is four times more likely to die than a child in Central province even though they are equal in dignity in the eyes of God. That’s a gap that has to be closed,” Obama said.
The need to prosecute the corrupt regardless of their position in society was Obama’s central message to Kenyans. He urged them decisively break the cycle of corruption, “change bad habits and culture as it holds back everything and weighs everyone down” while threatening to destroy gains made.
Obama said no country could be entirely free from corruption but the problem arose when it was “tolerated and accepted as a culture of how things have always been done”.
Corruption was widely debated during Obama’s visit. Multi-billion shilling scandals have dogged Kenya and made headlines globally. In Kenyatta’s current government, at least five Cabinet secretaries have been implicated in graft cases, some of which are still pending in courts.
“Across the country a study shows that corruption costs Kenyans 250,000 jobs every year. Because every shilling that’s paid as a bribe could be put into the pocket of somebody who’s actually doing an honest day’s work,” Obama said.
Kenyatta did not speak at Sunday’s event. Obama also noted that gagging civil society was counterproductive as it was key in fighting graft. He noted that his hometown Chicago had been infamous for all sorts of corrupt activities but this had changed when people got tired, stood up and decided to change the culture.
Obama also said that the divisive politics that put Kenya in global headlines were eroding gains in the political field that had been achieved since the start of the era of multi-party elections.
“Old tribal divisions and ethnic divisions can still be stirred up. I want to be very clear here, politics that’s based solely on tribe and ethnicity, it’s a politics that doomed to tear the country apart. It is a failure, a failure of imagination,” he said.
Obama said Kenya had nearly been torn apart by political violence in the 2007 elections but had chosen “a better history” in the next elections in 2013.
“Tragically just under a decade ago Kenya was nearly torn apart by violence at the same time that I was running for my first campaign for President and I remember hearing the reports of thousands of innocent people being killed or driven from their homes.
“And from a distance it seemed like the Kenya that I knew, the Kenya that was able to reach beyond ethnic and tribal lines, that it might split apart across those lines of tribe and ethnicity. But look what happened, the people of Kenya chose not to be defined by the hatred of the past you chose a better history,” said Obama.
He commended the Kenyan opposition, whose leader Raila Odinga was present in the audience, for dealing with its grievances about the 2013 elections in a non-combative way. He also praised the new constitution for being one of the progressive ones in the world, ensuring freedoms were exercised.
Obama said political stability had enabled Kenya to become one of the emerging economies in Africa even though he also noted that the country’s economy had been on par with South Korea’s when Kenya became independent in 1963 but was now 40% behind.
But Kenya had halved this difference over the last decade. Obama said the US was not perfect but was very critical of itself, knowing it could never be perfect but kept trying.
He said Kenya could not be complacent and accept the world just as it was but instead had to confront dark corners of the past and see the diversity of the country as a strength, just as Americans did, rather than as a weakness.
He said progressive democracies began with elections but didn’t end there as governments needed to be more responsive to the needs of their people and to promote space for citizens to exercise their rights, despite it being a messy process for leaders who were always criticised.
But this criticism ensured leaders were up to their game, Obama said.
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