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US President Barack Obama Speaks on Hopes for Kenya

Published on Saturday 5th June 2010

US President Barack Obama spoke strongly of his wish to see a more prosperous Kenya in his first full interview dedicated to the country of his father's birth.

During the White House interview with a Kenyan journalist, President Obama urged Kenyans to seize "the moment" offered through the referendum on a new constitution to put the post-election violence behind it.

In comments that were welcomed by President Kibaki on Friday, Mr Obama sent the strongest indication yet that he wanted to see Kenya's constitution review come to a successful conclusion and announced plans to visit the country before his term expires.

But he clarified that the US was not pushing for the Yes vote at the referendum slated for August 4. The decision to vote Yes or No at the referendum was upto Kenyans themselves, the president said.

"I'm openly supporting the process. I'm not openly supporting the result," President Obama said.

Advantage

"I think it's up to the Kenyan people to make a decision about the direction of their country but as a great friend of Kenya and as president of the United States, I am hoping that the Kenyan people, through a process of self-determination, are able to take advantage of this moment."

He warned that the opponents of the constitution review were making a big mistake.

He urged Kenyans to take part in the forthcoming referendum to put the Kenyan governance on a more solid footing that can move beyond ethnic violence, corruption and towards a path of economic prosperity.

"It has been a bumpy road over these last 47 years but I'm very encouraged by the actions of (Kenyan) Parliament to issue a draft constitution," he said.

Great honour

The interview took place in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on the occasion of the 47th Madaraka Day. Excerpts of it were aired by KBC TV on Thursday night.

During the interview, President Obama who traces his roots to Kenya also announced his intention to visit the country before his term expires.

"Well, I'm positive that before my service as President is completed I will visit Kenya again, as President of the United States," he said.

In a statement on Friday, State House said: "We welcome the plans by President Obama to visit Kenya. This will be a great honour and appreciate the value he attaches to the government and people of Kenya.

"We also welcome his positive comments on the reform agenda that President Kibaki has prioritised with the added impetus as the country enters the final stretch to a new constitutional dispensation. The reform agenda is driven by the desire to bring about positive change to Kenyans. We will heartily welcome President Obama to the land of his father and look forward to furthering our relations during his tenure in office."

On Monday next week, President Obama's top emissary, Vice-President Joe Biden arrives in Nairobi en route to South Africa for the opening of the football World Cup.

He will convey the president's support for the constitution review as well as address the shared interests in peace and stability in the region, particularly in Sudan and Somalia when he meets President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the two-day stay in Kenya.

Shaky coalition

"But Joe Biden, his presence as my top emissary is the same one that I'm expressing today: We want Kenya to succeed," President Obama said.

Mr Obama chose Ghana rather than Kenya, his father's homeland, for his first trip to Africa as President of the United States in May 2009 mainly because of the slow pace of reforms then and a shaky coalition government.

"In skipping Kenya, the first African American president is signalling that he puts political values over ancestral allegiances," the Nation wrote back then.

Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula then denied that President Obama had snubbed the country.

Suspects

Things look to have taken a different twist and the US views the country from a different perspective: The country is on the verge of getting a new constitution, the various commissions created after the post-election violence are up and running albeit some slowly.

Kenya has also given assurances to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in trying post-election chaos suspects.

President Obama hailed the leadership of President Kibaki and Mr Odinga for steering the reform process this far.

He said the two principals were "saying the right things" and urged Kenyans to "take it to heart".

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