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What did we gain from Hillary Clinton’s visit?

Hillary Clinton paid her much-anticipated visit to Kenya. US President Barack Obama had already signalled his unwillingness to visit his fatherland, so we knew that his redoubtable Secretary of State was the next best thing.

Now, I often wonder about these visits and whether they serve any purpose other than spelling out America’s agenda in Africa, giving veiled warnings to Kenya to play the game or else, dangling a bit of money, and engaging in much diplomatic-speak and double-talk.

But I have to say, Mrs Clinton’s ‘town hall’ performance at the University of Nairobi left me both pleased and thoughtful. This was a well-designed question-and-answer session from an audience of students, academics and civil society people – with barely a government official present. It was covered live by major TV stations, and we all got a chance to see some awkward questions put to the Secretary of State.

In addition, the session was moderated by one of the world’s foremost media personalities, Fareed Zakaria. Mr Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and hosts the excellent ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ show on CNN every Sunday – probably the only thing on TV that I try to watch every week. So influential is Mr Zakaria that he was named one of Esquire magazine’s 21 most important people of the 21st century.

Three images stayed with me after the UoN session. The first was of Mrs Clinton, who lost to Barack Obama in the US presidential primaries in 2008, now standing up to represent her country. The Obama-Clinton battle was a titanic one, involving much bitterness and name-calling. But here she was, having accepted high office and reporting to her former rival, doing a thoroughly professional and impassioned job of serving her country.

Can we please learn from this, people? That elections are not about ME and MY victory, at all costs? That they are about respecting the will of the people, and accepting both victory and defeat with composure and dignity? That the good of the country overrides the ambitions of any individual, and that the country can still be served in a different capacity?

The second image was of one of the world’s most powerful people subjecting herself to open, unscripted questions from an audience. And the questions were not always the easiest. Some concerned the USA’s strange vacillations in the aftermath of Kenya’s recent election debacle, when the world power seemed to say a number of conflicting things before putting up a united policy front. Others focused on the tricky issue of the USA lecturing lesser powers on democracy and governance.

But the point is this: Mrs Clinton took all the questions head-on, and she answered them with charm, skill and knowledge. Her answers may not have pleased everyone, but she provided them nonetheless. As a result, we are all able to reflect on the issues and make up our own minds.

We ourselves live in a country where once power is gained, no awkward questions are entertained, period. Prickly people asking prickly questions are ignored, threatened or called ‘pumbavus’. That is no way to conduct a modern society. When was the last time you saw our own leaders holding an open debate like Mrs Clinton’s? Why is it that we have to wait for foreign dignitaries to arrive before we set up events like these? They should be a regular part of leadership, where we interrogate those we have voted for and test their credentials.

Which brings me to my third image. No Kenyan needs reminding that we are living through one of the worst crime waves in recent memory, with a spate of killings, robberies, car-jackings and abductions continuing to bedevil the ordinary citizen. So it was with some relief that I saw armed policemen patrolling my street and various shopping malls last week. I heard the police helicopter make an appearance at night with its searchlight after many months, and I thought the police had finally woken up and were doing what we pay them to do – keep the citizenry safe.

But of course I had forgotten about the impending arrival of our VIP American visitor. That was the only reason the police were out in force – to protect a foreigner. Which makes me more angry than I can express here. So we don’t want to be lectured by outsiders? Then why is it that we only provide basic security, paint the roads and prettify the city when an important foreigner is in town? Who is it more important to serve – our own people or visiting dignitaries?

So, when the good lady Hillary is gone, will the police go back to snoozing, and the leaders to counting their motorcades? That is the tragedy of this country. There is nothing material we need from Mrs Clinton or Mr Obama. What we need is their leadership model: one that serves its nation, not the other way round.

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