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The true lesson of Obama’s visit

Sep 03, 2006 Leadership, Sunday Nation

We are impressed, are we not? Many had doubts and misgivings about what a visiting American senator could do for us. Many of us feared that Kenyans would take the visit of ‘one of their own’, and an influential one at that, as an opportunity to line up and plead for assistance.

But Senator Barack Obama, let it be stated clearly, was a revelation.

There were early signs of there being something different about this man. We observed his undoubted ‘star quality’: youthful looks, a confident bearing, a strong and booming voice. We noted that he handled adoring crowds with aplomb: acknowledging them without getting too excited himself. We noticed the grace and genuine warmth with which met his family members. And we saw the ease with which he hobnobbed with government bigwigs and opposition leaders alike. This man clearly had the carriage of a born leader.

But we were not, perhaps, prepared for his grasp of the issues and his willingness to tackle them head on. We should have realised that this was not a man to mince his words: he had, after all, attacked South Africa’s controversial policy on HIV-Aids while visiting that country – for which indiscretion he was rewarded with a snub by President Thabo Mbeki.

In Kenya, he could have taken the nice, diplomatic route: praise your hosts, flatter your admirers, make vague promises and mouth sweet nothings wherever you go. It’s a well-trodden path. But this senator did not go there. Instead, he told President Kibaki about the intolerable levels of corruption in his government; he condemned the government’s lamentable recent attack on media freedom by making a purposeful visit to the Standard Group, the victim of that attack; and he took an HIV test in full public view, challenging every Kenyan to do the same.

His piece de resistance was the landmark address at the University of Nairobi, which I imagine will be remembered for some time to come. Politely, eloquently and emphatically, the young senator placed his finger on this country’s open sores: corruption; negative ethnicity; and our inability to propel ourselves out of poverty. We were ticked off about our obsession with tribal identity at the expense of nationhood; and about our continuing inability to stand up against entrenched corruption. Make no mistake, we were hauled over the coals as a country; yet such was the smoothness of the delivery that not a Kenyan seated in the Taifa Hall appeared to take offence.

In between all that, Senator Obama managed to go to Siaya to meet his relatives; plant a symbolic tree with Wangari Maathai at Freedom Corner; go as far as Wajir to witness our northern wasteland; see the urban squalor called Kibera; and enjoy the wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara with his wife and children. Not that difficult, if your working day starts before breakfast and ends after dinner.

The crowds loved him, and turned up in large numbers wherever he went. Yet this man was not here just to reconnect with his homeland and play to the gallery. He is a senator of the US government, and the American agenda was never ignored. His various statements – on terrorism, corruption, free markets, democracy – were in keeping with the thrust of US foreign policy. He knows very well which country he represents, and whose interests he must protect.

So what are we to make of our ‘son’s’ visit? What hopes should we place in him, and what should we expect him to do for us? The short answers are ‘none’ and ‘nothing’. He owes us nothing; and he should do nothing for us. We can never be ‘saved’ by people from the outside world, no matter who their fathers were. Our responsibility is still to save ourselves. It always was, always will be.

The Senator, to his credit, knows this. If there was an overriding message in his many addresses, it was this: Kenya has to compete. It has to take its place in the world economy, and ensure that that place delivers sustained prosperity. Competing demands unity of purpose; knowledge and skills; world-class infrastructure; and openness in our dealings. We won’t compete by worrying about which particular hut our grandfathers came from; we will compete by becoming a nation that makes the right investments and does things the right way.

So anyone holding their breath waiting for trade concessions, bigger aid flows and favourable policy changes as a result of Senator Obama’s visit – unclench. It is not his job to deliver those things; and even if he did deliver them, they are the merest of crumbs. We still have to do our own thinking, build our own competitiveness, develop our own answers, and haul our people out of crippling poverty. All by ourselves.

Yet this was a landmark visit for Kenya. Why? Because Senator Obama left us with one very important lesson. To understand it, consider this: at the start of his visit, politicians of all shades were queueing up to meet him, be associated with him, and bask in his reflected glory. As he left, they had all slunk away, mumbling complaints and playing down the man’s importance.

The truth is, Barack Obama makes every politician in Kenya look bad. Our boys and girls just don’t cut it in the modern leadership stakes. Here was a man with the intellect to grasp the issues; with the bravery to court unpopularity; with the vigour of the Energizer Bunny; and with the charisma to make crowds applaud his every word, no matter how vapid.

In contrast, our parliamentarians excel in being crafty rather than clever; in making every populist promise under the sun rather than telling Kenyans the truth; in demonstrating the work ethic of a burst balloon; and in keeping a retinue of hired goons to chase their political rivals (also goons) out of their constituencies. You tell me the last time a Kenyan leader made a thoughtful, riveting and moving address that inspired us to be better, do more and aim higher.

Kenyans have now seen just what an effective leader looks like and sounds like. We have seen exactly what a combination of education, vision, courage and application can deliver. We have a benchmark, and it is a high one. We will not get our son to come back and lead us; no, he would do better to go for the highest office in his own country, something that is surely within his reach in years to come. But what we must do is develop our own Barack Obamas right here, many of them. Leaders who can make us rise above a preoccupation with surnames and overnight gains, and who can get us to engage, finally, with the real issues that bedevil us. And do it with a measure of style and intelligence.

Let us now not settle for incompetence and charlatanry. We need world-class leaders, and nothing else will do. In compromising the standards of leadership we find acceptable in this country, we have compromised our entire future.

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