The first time I came to
Kenya was in 1987. I had just finished three years of work as a
community organizer in low-income neighborhoods of Chicago, and
was about to enroll in law school. My sister, Auma, was teaching
that year at this university, and so I came to stay with her for
My experience then was
very different than it has been on this trip. Instead of a motorcade,
we traveled in my sister's old VW Beetle, which even then was already
ten years old. When it broke down in front of Uhuru Park, we had
to push until some joakalis came to fix it by the side of the road.
I slept on the couch of my sister's apartment, not a fancy hotel,
and often took my meals at a small tea-house in downtown Nairobi.
When we went upcountry, we traveled by train and matatu, with chickens
and collard greens and sometimes babies placed in my lap.
But it was a magical trip.
To begin with, I discovered the warmth and sense of community that
the people of Kenya possess - their sense of hopefulness even in
the face of great difficulty. I discovered the beauty of the land,
a beauty that haunts you long after you've left.
And most importantly for
me, I discovered the story of my father's life, and the story of
his father before him.
I learned that my grandfather
had been a cook for the British and, although he was a respected
elder in his village, he was called "boy" by his employers
for most of his life. I learned about the brutal repression of Operation
Anvil, the days of rape and torture in the "Pipeline"
camps, the lives that so many gave, and how my grandfather had been
arrested briefly during this period, despite being at the periphery
of Kenya's liberation struggles.
I learned how my father
had grown up in a tiny village called Alego, near Siaya, during
this period of tumult. I began to understand and appreciate the
distance he had traveled - from being a boy herding goats to a student
at the University of Hawaii and Harvard University to the respected
economist that he was upon his return to Kenya. In many ways, he
embodied the new Africa of the early Sixties, a man who had obtained
the knowledge of the Western world, and sought to bring it back
home, where he hoped he could help create a new nation.
And yet, I discovered that
for all his education, my father's life ended up being filled with
disappointments. His ideas about how Kenya should progress often
put him at odds with the politics of tribe and patronage, and because
he spoke his mind, sometimes to a fault, he ended up being fired
from his job and prevented from finding work in the country for
many, many years. And on a more personal level, because he never
fully reconciled the traditions of his village with more modern
conceptions of family - because he related to women as his father
had, expecting them to obey him no matter what he did - his family
life was unstable, and his children never knew him well.
In many ways, then, my
family's life reflects some of the contradictions of Kenya, and
indeed, the African continent as a whole. The history of Africa
is a history of ancient kingdoms and great traditions; the story
of people fighting to be free from colonial rule; the heroism of
not only of great men like Nkrumah and Kenyatta and Mandela, but
also ordinary people who endured great hardship, from Ghana to South
Africa, to secure self-determination in the face of great odds.
But for all the progress
that has been made, we must surely acknowledge that neither Kenya
nor the African continent have yet fulfilled their potential - that
the hopefulness of the post-colonial era has been replaced by cynicism
and sometimes despair, and that true freedom has not yet been won
for those struggling to live on less than a few shillings a day,
for those who have fallen prey to HIV/AIDS or malaria, to those
ordinary citizens who continue to find themselves trapped in the
crossfire of war or ethnic conflict.
One statistic powerfully
describes this unfulfilled promise. In early 1960's, as Kenya was
gaining its independence, its gross national product was not very
different from that of South Korea. Today, South Korea's economy
is forty times larger than Kenya's.
How can we explain this
fact? Certainly it is not due to lack of effort on the part of ordinary
Kenyans - we know how hard Kenyans are willing to work, the tremendous
sacrifices that Kenyan mothers make for their children, the Herculean
efforts that Kenyan fathers make for their families. We know as
well the talent, the intelligence, and the creativity that exists
in this country. And we know how much this land is blessed - just
as the entire African continent is blessed - with great gifts and
So what explains this?
I believe there a number of factors at work.
Kenya, like many African
nations did not come of age under the best historical circumstances.
It suffers from the legacy of colonialism, of national boundaries
that were drawn without regard to the political and tribal alignments
of indigenous peoples, and that therefore fed conflict and tribal
Kenya was also forced to
rapidly move from a highly agrarian to a more urban, industrialized
nation. This means that the education and health care systems -
issues that my own nation more than 200 years old still struggles
with - lag behind, impacting its development.
Third, Kenya is hurt from
factors unique to Africa's geography and place in the world -- disease,
distance from viable markets and especially terms of trade. When
African nations were just gaining independence, industrialized nations
had decades of experience building their domestic economies and
navigating the international financial system. And, as Frederick
Douglass once stated: "Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did, and it never will." As a result, many African
nations have been asked to liberalize their markets without reciprocal
concessions from mature economies. This lack of access for Africa's
agriculture and commodities has restricted an important engine of
economic growth. Other issues, such as resource extraction and the
drain of human capital have also been major factors.
As a Senator from the United
States, I believe that my country, and other nations, have an obligation
and self-interest in being full partners with Kenya and with Africa.
And, I will do my part to shape an intelligent foreign policy that
promotes peace and prosperity. A foreign policy that gives hope
and opportunity to the people of this great continent.
But, Kenya must do its
part. It cannot wait for other nations to act first. The hard truth
is that nations, by and large, will act in their self-interest and
if Kenya does not act, it will fall behind.
It's more than just history
and outside influences that explain why Kenya lags behind. Like
many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in
its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable.
One that serves its people and is free from corruption.
There is no doubt that
what Kenyans have accomplished with this independence is both impressive
and inspiring. Among African nations, Kenya remains a model for
representative democracy - a place where many different ethnic factions
have found a way to live and work together in peace and stability.
You enjoy a robust civil society; a press that's free, fair, and
honest; and a strong partnership with my own country that has resulted
in critical cooperation on terrorist issues, real strides in fighting
disease and poverty, and an important alliance on fostering regional
And yet, the reason I speak
of the freedom that you fought so hard to win is because today that
freedom is in jeopardy. It is being threatened by corruption.
Corruption is not a new
problem. It's not just a Kenyan problem, or an African problem.
It's a human problem, and it has existed in some form in almost
every society. My own city of Chicago has been the home of some
of the most corrupt local politics in American history, from patronage
machines to questionable elections. In just the last year, our own
U.S. Congress has seen a representative resign after taking bribes,
and several others fall under investigation for using their public
office for private gain.
But while corruption is
a problem we all share, here in Kenya it is a crisis - a crisis
that's robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought
for - the opportunity they deserve.
I know that while recent
reports have pointed to strong economic growth in this country,
56% of Kenyans still live in poverty. And I know that the vast majority
of people in this country desperately want to change this.
It is painfully obvious
that corruption stifles development - it siphons off scarce resources
that could improve infrastructure, bolster education systems, and
strengthen public health. It stacks the deck so high against entrepreneurs
that they cannot get their job-creating ideas off the ground. In
fact, one recent survey showed that corruption in Kenya costs local
firms 6% of their revenues, the difference between good-paying jobs
in Kenya or somewhere else. And corruption also erodes the state
from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is
no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their
presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than comfort.
Corruption has a way of
magnifying the very worst twists of fate. It makes it impossible
to respond effectively to crises -- whether it's the HIV/AIDS pandemic
or malaria or crippling drought.
What's worse - corruption
can also provide opportunities for those who would harness the fear
and hatred of others to their agenda and ambitions.
It can shield a war criminal
- even one like Felicien Kabuga, suspected of helping to finance
and orchestrate the Rwandan genocide - by allowing him to purchase
safe haven for a time and robbing all humanity of the opportunity
to bring the criminal to justice.
Terrorist attacks - like
those that have shed Kenyan blood and struck at the heart of the
Kenyan economy - are facilitated by customs and border officers
who can be paid off, by police forces so crippled by corruption
that they do not protect the personal safety of Kenyans walking
the streets of Nairobi, and by forged documents that are easy to
find in a climate where graft and fraud thrive.
Some of the worst actors
on the international stage can also take advantage of the collective
exhaustion and outrage that people feel with official corruption,
as we've seen with Islamic extremists who promise purification,
but deliver totalitarianism. Endemic corruption opens the door to
this kind of movement, and in its wake comes a new set of distortions
and betrayals of public trust.
In the end, if the people
cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists
- to protect them and to promote their common welfare - all else
is lost. And this is why the struggle against corruption is one
of the great struggles of our time.
The good news is that there are already signs of progress here.
Willingness to report corruption is increasingly significantly in
Kenya. The Kenyan media has been courageous in uncovering and reporting
on some of the most blatant abuses of the system, and there has
been a growing recognition among people and politicians that this
is a critical issue.
Among other things, this
recognition resulted in the coalition that came to power in the
December elections of 2002. This coalition succeeded by promising
change, and their early gestures - the dismissal of the shaky judges,
the renewed vigor of the investigation into the Goldenberg scandal,
the calls for real disclosure of elected officials' personal wealth
- were all promising.
But elections are not enough.
In a true democracy, it is what happens between elections that is
the true measure of how a government treats its people.
Today, we're starting to
see that the Kenyan people want more than a simple changing of the
guard, more than piecemeal reforms to a crisis that's crippling
their country. The Kenyan people are crying out for real change,
and whether one voted orange or banana in last year's referendum,
the message that many Kenyans seemed to be sending was one of dissatisfaction
with the pace of reform, and real frustration with continued tolerance
of corruption at high levels.
And so we know that there
is more work to be done - more reforms to be made. I don't have
all the solutions or think that they'll be easy, but there are a
few places that a country truly committed to reform could start.
We know that the temptation
to take a bribe is greater when you're not making enough on the
job. And we also know that the more people there are on the government
payroll, the more likely it is that someone will be encouraged to
take a bribe. So if the government found ways to downsize the bureaucracy
- to cut out the positions that aren't necessary or useful - it
could use the extra money to increase the salary of other government
Of course, the best way
to reduce bureaucracy and increase pay is to create more private
sector jobs. And the way to create good jobs is when the rules of
a society are transparent - when there's a clear and advertised
set of laws and regulations regarding how to start a business, what
it takes to own property, how to go about getting a loan - there
is less of a chance that some corrupt bureaucrat will make up his
own rules that suit only his interests. Clarifying these rules and
focusing resources on building a judicial system that can enforce
them and resolve disputes should be a primary goal of any government
suffering from corruption.
In addition, we know that
the more information the public is provided, the easier it will
be for your Kenyan brothers and sisters out in the villages to evaluate
whether they are being treated fairly by their public servants or
not. Wealth declarations do little good if no one can access them,
and accountability in government spending is not possible if no
one knows how much was available and allocated to a given project
in the first place.
Finally, ethnic-based tribal
politics has to stop. It is rooted in the bankrupt idea that the
goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as
possible to one's family, tribe, or circle with little regard for
the public good. It stifles innovation and fractures the fabric
of the society. Instead of opening businesses and engaging in commerce,
people come to rely on patronage and payback as a means of advancing.
Instead of unifying the country to move forward on solving problems,
it divides neighbor from neighbor.
An accountable, transparent
government can break this cycle. When people are judged by merit,
not connections, then the best and brightest can lead the country,
people will work hard, and the entire economy will grow - everyone
will benefit and more resources will be available for all, not just
Of course, in the end,
one of the strongest weapons your country has against corruption
is the ability of you, the people, to stand up and speak out about
the injustices you see. The Kenyan people are the ultimate guardians
The world knows the names
of Wangari Maathai and John Githongo, who are fighting against the
insidious corruption that has weakened Kenya. But there are so many
others, some of whom I'm meeting during my visit here - Betty Murungi,
Ken Njau, Jane Onyango, Maina Kiai, Milly Odhiombo, and Hussein
Khalid. As well as numerous Kenyan men and women who have refused
to pay bribes to get civil servants to perform their duties; the
auditors and inspectors general who have done the job before them
accurately and fairly, regardless of where the facts have led; the
journalists who asked questions and pushed for answers when it may
have been more lucrative to look the other way, or whip up a convenient
fiction. And then there are anonymous Kenyan whistleblowers who
show us what is, so that we can all work together to demand what
By rejecting the insulting
idea that corruption is somehow a part of Kenyan culture, these
heroes reveal the very opposite - they reveal a strength and integrity
of character that can build a great country, a great future. By
focusing on building strong, independent institutions - like an
anti-corruption commission with real authority - rather than cults
of personality, they make a contribution to their country that will
last longer than their own lives. They fight the fight of our time.
Looking out at this crowd
of young people, I have faith that you will fight this fight too.
You will decide if your
leaders will be held accountable, or if you will look the other
You will decide if the
standards and the rules will be the same for everyone - regardless
of ethnicity or of wealth.
And you will determine
the direction of this country in the 21st century - whether the
hard work of the many is lost to the selfish desires of a few, or
whether you build an open, honest, stronger Kenya where everyone
This is the Kenya that
so many who came before you envisioned - all those men and women
who struggled and sacrificed and fought for the freedom you enjoy
I know that honoring their
memory and making that freedom real may seem like an impossible
task - an effort bigger than you can imagine - but sometimes all
it takes to move us there is doing what little you can to right
the wrongs you see.
As I said at the outset,
I did not know my father well - he returned to Kenya from America
when I was still young. Since that time I have known him through
stories - those my mother would tell and those I heard from my relatives
here in Kenya on my last trip to this country.
I know from these stories
that my father was not a perfect man - that he made his share of
mistakes and disappointed his share of people in his lifetime.
As our parents' children,
we have the opportunity to learn from these mistakes and disappointments.
We have the opportunity to muster the courage to fulfill the promise
of our forefathers and lead our great nations towards a better future.
In today's Kenya - a Kenya
already more open and less repressive than in my father's day -
it is that courage that will bring the reform so many of you so
desperately want and deserve. I wish all of you luck in finding
this courage in the days and months to come, and I want you to know
that as your ally, your friend, and your brother, I will be there
to help in any way I can. Thank you.