President Barack Obama, POTUS, as he is now popularly referred to, will this weekend visit Kenya for the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) being co-hosted by the Government of Kenya. The visit is one that, in the minds of Kenyans, has been a long time coming. POTUS (which stands for President of the United States), after all, is Kenya’s son and the visit has every feel of a homecoming. Nairobi residents will testify that in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the first sitting American president in over a century – the city has receive a facelift in record time. One resident even joked that Kenyans would back a third term for POTUS if it meant he could visit home a few more times during this term and spur further reform.
This mindset is reflective of Kenyans’ collective hope that POTUS’ visit will spur reforms in the country that they have been yearning to see. President Obama’s visit comes at a time when the thirst for real meaningful reform in matters of corruption, security and overall governance in the country is neither matched by what the government promised when it came into power, nor what it is seemingly able to deliver.
There is hope, nonetheless. Relations between Nairobi and Washington have over the last few years been frosty, to put it mildly. President Obama’s visit to Kenya this week, however, is indicative that despite the challenges that may present themselves in engagement with government, mutual respect and partnership is indeed possible with the proper investment and goodwill.
The relationship between Kenyan government and civil society needs similar investment and the platform provided by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) provides a great vehicle to drive this process. The OGP, which Kenya has been a participating state of since 2012, is founded on the understanding that neither government nor civil society has a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to how to make government transparent and accountable to its citizens. Instead, reform must be conceptualized and driven by those actors within and outside of government that seek to see improved open government for the benefit of the citizenry.
When President Obama meets President Uhuru Kenyatta this weekend, he will be emphasizing the need for Kenyatta to address the endemic corruption and impunity that threatens to derail his government’s ambitious development plans; and is hampering his government’s efforts to effectively combat terrorism. Obama will also be emphasizing the need for the current administration to meaningfully engage Kenyan civil society under the platform provided by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to map out reforms that would advance transparency, accountability and citizen participation in his government.
President Obama’s visit is no doubt a huge coup for the government; and testament that Kenya’s geopolitical weight and position on the continent simply cannot be underestimated. This recognition must also, however, be had by the government of Kenya; and its responsibility to provide leadership in the region in matters of open government.
The third pillar of the manifesto upon which the government came into power in 2013 commits the government to “uwazi” – which literally translates to openness. The administration’s commendable efforts to improve public service delivery and make government data open and accessible must be matched by efforts to protect and promote civic space in the country; engage civil society and make government more accountable.
Photo courtesy of the White House