The simple Obama message that was not so simple after all

It was one of the most anticipated statements in Kenya, at least in political and civil society circles. And when it dropped, it sparked a furore that belied the simplicity of the message carried in the 2:38 minute video recording.

US President Barack Obama, who has roots in Kenya, on Tuesday finally weighed in on Kenya’s charged electoral politics, as the country literally bunkers down ahead of a high-stakes March 4 general election.

Opening with a rather odd-sounding (probably due to its high-pitch) “Habari yako” (Kiswahili for "how are you”) greeting, his opening statements were predictable enough, thanking Kenyans for welcoming him and his family to their country when he visited, most recently in 2006.

He was proud of his Kenyan connection, he intoned. The were also some niceties on the “warmth and spirit, the strength and resolve” of the Kenyan people as he praised the country’s progress and its lifting of people from poverty.

Turning to business, Obama recalled the country’s resilience in “the face of great difficulty” and “the turmoil of five years ago", an allusion to the disputed presidential election in 2007 that sparked widespread violence and looting, uprooting close to 600,000 people from their homes.

But Kenya has since “worked to rebuild communities, reform institutions and pass a new constitution,” he noted.

It was now time for the big stick. Urging a free and fair vote, Obama said that any disputes must be resolved in the courts, not “in the streets” and called for a united Kenya “before and after the elections to carry on the work of building your country”.

And then came the much-awaited moment: "The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenya people. The United States does not endorse any candidate for office.

"But we do support an election that is peaceful, and reflects the will of the people.”

Polarised climate

The rest of the message which centred on the rejection of violence and the support of the US as an ally for “all of you who are willing to walk on this path of progress” was quickly lost in the politics-mad country, as supporters of the two main election frontrunners scrounged for any scraps to gain mileage.

Indeed, several news websites had a hard time with the story, some changing their headlines twice in the space of an hour. The “US will not endorse any candidate“ and “US to respect free and fair Kenya presidential vote” seemed to be the consensus.

At a hastily-convened press conference, deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who heads the Jubilee Coalition, the spin was that nothing in Obama's speech suggested the superpower's position with regard to sanctions or support for a particular candidate, never mind that Obama's message sounded carefully scripted to leave room for an altogether different tone if the pair are elected.

Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are facing trials at the International Criminal Court following the violence of 2008, sparking huge speculation about possible negative reactions from the international community if they were to win while the charges still hang over them.

For the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord), which is offering Prime Minister Raila Odinga as its flagbearer, the reaction was notably muted, supporters having hoped for a stronger US position.

Headquarters struggled to hide their disappointment: "It is a pleasure to know that the President is taking such keen personal interest in the unfolding Kenyan election, and is also so fully aware of the key issues at play," said a statement from the Odinga side.

In the real sense, it is unlikely that a definite Obama stance would have had any perceptible shift in voting patterns, with opinion polls showing most voters have made up their minds. The pool of undecideds is also small, and while not insignificant, it is unlikely to avert a runoff, as the numbers show.

With the polarised climate, many western powers have been careful to strike a tone of neutrality, from Germany to the UK and now the US. Whether this holds will be only clearer when a winner is announced.

But if there is anything that the furore has proved, it is Kenyan's ability to spin just about anything to suit a situation.

As the Nigerians are wont to say in their popular films, Afro-Cinema continues.

Twitter: @ShrewdAfrican

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