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President Obama Can't Save Kenya

New America Media, Commentary, Edwin Okongo Posted: Nov 05, 2008

Editors Note: Millions of Kenyans will be waiting for President Obama to fix the Kenyan economy. But only Kenyans can help Kenya get out of poverty, writes NAM Associate Editor Edwin Okong'o.

Never in history have more people from all over the world watched a presidential race as they did this one. Much of the sensation was because it was the first time it was likely that an African American would be elected president of a country whose foreign policy affects every country in the world. But a whole lot of it was because Obama has direct roots in the African continent, specifically Kenya. There, millions will be waiting for President Obama to offer a timeline for fixing the Kenyan economy.

What Kenyans expect of Obama is based on the mere fact that his father was from Kenya, which, according to our traditions, makes the president-elect a Kenyan. Because Kenyans abroad are expected to help their less fortunate relatives, many expect President Obama to help them. They have mistaken his quest to understand his roots and the relationship he has kept with his father's family to mean that he has accepted that responsibility.

This belief that President Obama will arrive from America as if from heaven to end our miseries also stems from the way we Kenyans have been trained to view our leaders.

Traditionally, a president was seen as an omnipotent figure one whose word is law.

Past Kenyan presidents have also tended to favor their tribesmen and cronies. When Jomo Kenyatta became the independent country's first president in 1963, he filled government jobs with people from his tribe. Kenyatta also poured more development funds into the infrastructure of his home area near Mount Kenya than any other region in the country.

When Daniel arap Moi took over after Kenyatta's death 16 years later, he channeled the funds to the part of the Rift Valley he comes from. Moi is said to have built roads in places where people did not own cars. Kenyans used to joke that, while the busiest highways were eroding away, the ones to Moi's hometown were so deserted that people dried grain on them.

This promise of wealth and privilege is why Kenyans went on a rampage, killing each other earlier this year when allegations of their presidential election surfaced.

Obama has said several times that he has no obligation to help Kenya. During his 2006 visit to Kenya, a reporter asked him what he could do for Kenya.

Im the senator from Illinois, not the senator from Kogelo (his fathers home), so I have got a different sent of responsibilities, he replied. They (Kenyans) have got some terrific elected officials here and they are accountable to their constituents.

Of course, being a politician himself, Obama was being careful not to offend local politicians, so let me say this: Kenyan elected officials arent of a breed any reasonable person would consider terrific. In fact, its their lack of accountability that has turned the country from the land of paradisiacal plenty it was during my childhood to the cesspool of poverty it is today. It is the politicians failure that has left poor Kenyans to look to foreigners like Obama for hope.

I have been told that I have ignored the fact that not all Kenyans expect Obama to help them. This I acknowledge. But such comments often come from people in the Diaspora and Kenyas modest middle class, many of whom have no concept of how dire the situation outside that circle is. They ignore the fact that a majority of their countrymen do not have access to information and therefore do not know that, unlike their head of state, President Obama has neither the obligation nor the authority to give Kenya a blank check.

Rather than attack those who caution against these unrealistic expectations of Obama, Kenyans who understand the workings of the American government should work to help their less fortunate kinsmen learn that only Kenyans can help Kenya get out of poverty.

Kenyans should realize that as difficult as Obamas journey to the White House was, it pales in comparison to what lies ahead of him. Considering the mess that he will inherit in January, it would be unrealistic for even those who elected him to expect him to return America to a full pre-Bush administration recovery. It would be even more insane for anyone outside America to expect anything.

Related Articles:

Village Mentors: How grassroots advocates are leading the fight against AIDS in Kenya

In Maasailand, No Child Left Behind Means Building a School Yourself

African Press Hopeful, Cautious, Realistic about Obama

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