Irungu is an old mate and a redoubtable activist (this post came in late because he ‘Was off school protecting’ – how cool is that?). He was also two seats away from The Man during Obama’s visit to Kenya last week. Here are some thoughts.
The excitement began at least three months before Airforce 1 landed on a spruced up and highly secured Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Over the subsequent weeks, in typical Kenyan fashion, Kenyans on Twitter or #KOT generated no less than ten trending and often hilarious hashtags that included #ObamaInKenya #SomebodyTellCNN #ObamaWelcometoKenyaWhere. But my favourite was #Kiderograss, which teased the Nairobi County Governor for planting grass in the capital a day before President Obama’s arrival. After barely 30 hours in Kenya, Airforce 1 took off, leaving behind both the Kenyan Government and citizens, both very happy at his visit (less typically Kenyan).
I attended one of the meetings with POTUS at the newly built regional Centre for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Seventy men, women and girls and one President were restricted to 60 minutes, but at least I got a selfie. Unfortunately the Embassy hasn’t sent it on yet – we had to surrender our phones, so you’ll have to make do with this TV screengrab – that’s me two seats to his left.
That one hour encounter leaves three issues for me.
Firstly, I hope both President Obama and President Kenyatta internalised the sheer diversity, passion and professionalism of the Public Benefit Organisations (or NGOs as they are more commonly called). Rather than leaders of Organisations, what I felt in that room was what informed and active citizens look and sound like. Whether they were innovating community conservancy approaches, building peace, reforming governance, whistleblowing or rescuing girls from female genital mutilation, the activism looked very diverse and resilient in that room that afternoon.
That matters because the last two years of acute tension between the Kenyan State and PBOs have been costly. Mutual trust and suspicion has probably been at their lowest since the early years of the 1990s and the re-establishment of multi-party democracy.
The second issue lies in a growing sense of global connectedness. Fifteen years ago, I remember being coached by an American NGO lobbyist to invoke the memory of the Twin Towers crashing to the ground on September 11 to illustrate the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa to an American Congressman. The parochialism of the American leadership was probably at an all-time high. Watching President Obama in the last week powerfully rebuke third term-hugging African leaders in their presence at the African Union Headquarters or firmly draw parallels between gay rights and civil rights in Nairobi or gingerly challenge the absence of democratic traditions in Ethiopia, I was left with a greater sense of US policy sophistication with regards to Africa.
Any wider review of US policy to Africa during his tenure would probably be less impressive. The US has missed opportunities to side with African nations on the global issues that have mattered to them on climate, trade, financing for development and tax justice. Which will be the real legacy – 30 hours of Nairobi euphoria, or the previous years of neglect?
Having said this, African change activists seem increasingly connecting and learning from the daily struggles of ordinary American people as much as from their leadership. We have common challenges. Some of these include speaking and acting for all to be equal under the law. #BlackLivesMatter but so do #SomaliLivesMatter when fighting terrorism in East Africa. We can do more against corruption and the stripping of public spaces, public and natural resources by those with power and privilege.
My third lasting impression is that Obama shows what can be achieved by getting involved in the daily grind of formal politics, however frustrating. Kenya is still in a transitional moment. Our practices fall far short of our constitutional vision on integrity, public participation, non-discrimination and devolution. While as PBOs and citizens we must guard our right and responsibility to act independently of the state, we must look for new ways of deepening these freedoms. National self-deprecation and “disruptionist” thinking may have protest value but they have little power to guide us through the transition.
I for one, have drawn several lines. The first line is against entertaining “anti-nation” thinking: that the corruption or the ethnic and gender based chauvinism is somehow genetically Kenyan. That we have the leaders we deserve or just the leaders we despise. Like its twin “disruptionist” thinking, this keeps us in protest mode and unable to powerfully create and own constituencies in the public interest. We have got to get more connected to citizens’ collective action around public interest issues. If we do this, we can walk into the middle of the room and inclusively lead.
Irũngũ Houghton is the Kenyan Associate Director for the Society for International Development based in Nairobi. Follow him on @irunguhoughton. For more on his excuse for being late, go to the campaign to protect Kenyan public schools from land-grabbing