Diplomatic Pouch / February 2013
By Larry Luxner
Many countries congratulated President Obama on his inauguration last week. But only one — Kenya — can actually claim him as a “native son” of sorts.
In that spirit, Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States, hosted a lively inauguration dinner Jan. 18 at the City Club of Washington that attracted 150 diplomats, dignitaries and other invited guests.
“We as Kenyans are proud of President Obama’s Kenyan roots and the unique bond our two nations share because of them,” he said. “Tonight, we also celebrate the strong and historic relationship between the United States and Kenya based upon our shared values of equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
He noted that Kenya’s first ambassador arrived in Washington in 1960, just two weeks after the country declared its independence — and that the first U.S. ambassador arrived in Nairobi also two weeks after independence was declared.
Odembo said the inauguration is a time for Obama to lay out his vision for the United States over the next four years, but that it should also be a time for Kenyans living here to “reflect upon what our own vision for U.S.-Kenyan relations are” between now and 2017, when Obama’s second term ends.
“Africa is not the next frontier; it is the now frontier, ready to realize its enormous potential,” said the ambassador. “In President Obama’s next term, we should work toward ensuring the United States only increase its efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Kenyan partnership, which is so critical to security as well as prosperity.”
Odembo made no mention either of his country’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Mar. 4 — or the ethnic violence that marred Kenya’s last elections in 2007, in which an estimated 1,500 people died and anywhere from 180,000 to 250,000 were displaced.
Nor did Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, a New York Democrat who serves on the International Relations Committee and its Subcommittee on Africa.
“Many of us who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus don’t know exactly where we could call home on the continent. So we have decided to adopt the entire continent,” said the congressman from Brooklyn. “We must build economic bonds so that we can rescue the future of the children of today and the children yet unborn. Collectively, together, we can make that happen.”
Meeks thanked the Kenyans gathered at the dinner for celebrating democracy, “and the wisdom of the American people to elect Barack H. Obama president of the United States,” he said to enthusiastic applause. “We have to deal with the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff, the sequestration issue, the gun control issue and a lot of other things going on. I’m convinced that sometimes you get the right man at the right time — and I believe we have the right man at the right time for the job.”
After the speeches, Odembo and Meeks toasted President Obama and turned the floor over to Anna Mwalagho and the Afro Floetry Band, which started the dancing with the band’s very own “Obama Song” in Swahili.
Among those celebrating with Odembo were two other ambassadors: Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar of Tanzania, who leaves Washington after just over two years here, and Akec Khoc of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, as well as representatives from the embassies of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
Other guests included Susan Driano, Kenya desk officer at the State Department; Steve McDonald, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Momodou Bamba Saho, executive director of the IMF’s Africa group, and John Gantt Jr., president of the International Conservation Caucus.