Wading gently into the politics of his father's homeland, United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Kenya to reject violence in next month's election, adding the voice of America's first black president to those hoping the country can avoid the descent into bloodshed that stained its last vote.
Obama released the rare country-specific message in a YouTube video in which he used Swahili greetings — the common language in Kenya — to open and close his message. He urged Kenyans to reject intimidation and violence, to allow a free and fair vote, and to resolve any disputes "in the courts, not in the streets."
"This is a moment for the people of Kenya to come together, instead of tearing apart. If you do, you can show the world that you are not just a member of a tribe or ethnic group, but citizens of a great and proud nation," said Obama, who has several relatives in the country, including half-siblings and a step-grandmother.
Kenya goes to the polls on March 4 to vote for president and other offices. It is the first national election since the 2007 presidential vote devolved into nationwide violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced some 600,000.
Obama's message is likely to be well received by most Kenyans, said John Githongo, a former adviser to Kenya President Mwai Kibaki on ethics and governance who resigned and then exposed hundreds of millions of dollars in government corruption.
"To many people who respect him and love him, as somebody who is the son of our soil, to say something like that is something that is much appreciated by Kenyans," Githongo said. "Of course there are those who will call it interference."
Obama visited Kenya as a U.S senator but did not visit during his first term as president, a fact that has disappointed many Kenyans. The president said in his message that he is grateful for his connection to the country and the welcome he has received there, "from my father's village in Alego, to bustling Nairobi."
Obama spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term. There are indications Obama may pay more attention to Africa in his second term, wrote J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C. think tank, in a blog posting this month.
"The sense of let-down acutely felt, both in African capitals and among the Africa constituency in Washington, over the lack of engagement during most of the administration's first term, remains palpable," Pham wrote, adding: "Ironically enough, one reason for the optimism is precisely the current dysfunctional state of America's divided government. Within Washington's insular foreign policy community, the tiny Africa constituency has long been known for bipartisan comity."
Obama said in a June 2010 interview with Kenya's state broadcaster that he was "positive" he would visit Kenya before the end of his presidency. But that promise may be hard to keep politically if violence recurs in this year's election. Complicating the politics of the election, one of the two major candidates for president, Uhuru Kenyatta, faces trial at the International Criminal Court related to charges he helped orchestrate the 2007-08 violence.
If Kenyatta wins this year's presidential race, some analysts fear he could break his promise to attend the ICC trial. If he doesn't, Kenya's relationships with the Western world will likely change dramatically.
Obama did not take sides in his message, other than to back peace.
"The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan 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," he said, before saying goodbye in Swahili: "Kwaheri."
Video of Obama's statement to the people of Kenya: http://youtu.be/kGW9mYAJ7G8