Obama urges calm in Kenya amid fears of election violence

Michael Walsh
Reporter
Pres. Barack Obama delivering a speech in Nairobi, Kenya, July 26, 2015. (Photo: Ben Curtis/AP)

Former President Barack Obama encouraged Kenyans to fully embrace the promise of democracy by accepting the results of their forthcoming presidential election —without resorting to violence.

In a statement on Monday, Obama said that Kenya’s election has already been tarnished by appeals to fear from all sides and called upon the country’s citizens to reject politics that play upon tribal and ethnic hatred. He said “the Kenyan people as a whole” would be losers if their election were to descend into violence.

“I urge Kenyan leaders to reject violence and incitement; respect the will of the people; urge security forces to act professionally and neutrally; and work together no matter the outcome,” he said. “I urge all Kenyans to work for an election — and aftermath — that is peaceful and credible, reinforcing confidence in your new constitution and the future of your country. Any disputes around the election should be resolved peacefully, through Kenya’s institutions and the rule of law.”

The election on Tuesday is a major test as to how far the East African country has come since 2007, when widespread violence following a contested election left more than 600,000 displaced and 1,100 dead. The torture and murder last week of a top election official, Chris Msando, has already tarnished this year’s campaign.

Recent opinion polls show no clear favorite in the contest between the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been in office since 2013, and the challenger, veteran politician Raila Odinga. Both men belong to Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups — Kenyatta to the Kikuyu and Odinga to the Luo — and the rivalry between their families dates back over half a century.

Barack Obama, bottom right, greets supporters after delivering a speech at Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi, July 26, 2015. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Almost two years ago, as president of the United States, Obama visited the East African country. He said Kenyans were standing at a crossroads, “a moment of extraordinary promise but also potential peril.” He said civil society could work to see that Kenya is defined by “the promise of the future” rather than “divisions of the past.”

“Today, those voices — your voices — are needed more than ever,” he said.

Obama identifies himself as a “friend of the Kenyan people.” He recalled witnessing their “remarkable progress” since his first visit to the country in 1987, before entering Harvard Law School. His father, Barack Obama Sr., who was born and raised in Kenya, played a prominent role in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”

The former U.S. leader urged President Kenyatta, Odinga, and all Kenyans to respect the following proverb: “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.”

“The choices you make in the coming days can either set Kenya back or bring it together,” Obama said. “As a friend of the Kenyan people, I urge you to work for a future defined not by fear and division, but by unity and hope.”

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