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Sunday, September 26, 2010

I’ll bring Obama home, says new envoy in Washington

Photo | White House Ambassador Elkanah Odembo Absalom poses for a picture with President Barack Obama after handing in his credentials at the Oval Office on August 10, 2010.

By Kevin J. Kelley
Posted Saturday, September 25 2010 at 22:00
In Summary

Odembo says his priority is to increase American investment in Kenya

Elkanah Odembo is taking over as Kenya’s Ambassador to the United States at a time of good feelings between the two countries, enhanced by the easing of tensions that complicated dealings between the Obama administration and Mr Odembo’s predecessor, Peter Ogego.

“There’s tremendous goodwill toward Kenya now. I feel it everywhere I go,” Mr Odembo said in an interview on the sidelines of last week’s United Nations sessions in New York.

Mr Odembo’s work in the US will be supplemented by the image-building activities being undertaken by CLS & Associates, a Washington PR firm.

Kenya has also retained the Moffett Group, headed by a former member of the US Congress, to lobby for the country on Capitol Hill.

Kenya has paid the two firms nearly $900,000 (Sh72 million) since mid-2009, according to a September 24 report in The Hill, a Congress-focused newspaper.

Historic opportunity

Kenya’s new Constitution is seen in the US as offering a historic opportunity to overcome corruption, which had soured Washington’s attitude toward Nairobi, Mr Odembo said in the interview with the Sunday Nation.

Asked to compare his diplomatic style with that of his predecessor, Mr Odembo said he brings to the job none of the baggage that had previously been weighting the work of the embassy in Washington.

The tall, dapper, US-educated envoy made clear his disapproval of the attack Mr Ogego launched on then-Senator Barack Obama four years ago.

Responding to Mr Obama’s criticisms of corruption during a 2006 visit to Kenya, Mr Ogego at the time accused the future president of “bad taste” in making “unprovoked and uncalled-for statements”.

Mr Obama had no cause to publicly find fault with Kenya “other than what appears to be to seek cheap publicity and inconsequential populism,” he said in a letter to the senator.

“Obama had said things we had been saying ourselves,” Mr Odembo said. “There’s no criticism the US government can direct to Kenya that is stronger than any criticisms I have put forward.”

He said Kenya has “messed up” a chance to earn hundreds of millions of dollars worth of US development aid.

Four years ago, Kenya was assigned to a “threshold programme” to help it resolve corruption issues that had prevented the country from qualifying for a performance-based Millennium Challenge grant.

US officials provided $12.7 million (Sh1 billion) for that initiative, but Kenya has made little progress in cleaning up the targeted procurement operation at the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, the ambassador said.

Trade benefits

Mr Odembo, who presented his credentials to President Obama last month, was also critical of Kenya’s response to the trade benefits available through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Rather than “moaning and crying” about proposals to extend Agoa trade preferences to competitors like Cambodia, African officials “should get on with our own efforts” to develop capacity, he said.

One of his top priorities in Washington, he said, will be to attract additional US investment to Kenya.

A few big American corporations do business in Nairobi, but smaller and medium-size enterprises, especially in the service sector, can also be convinced to enter the Kenyan and regional markets.

Heads centre

He said he had been introduced to several professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Prof Calestous Juma, a Kenyan who heads a science and international affairs centre at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Prof Juma is keen for Kenya to establish an honorary consulate in the Boston/Cambridge area.

Organising the diaspora will be among his top objectives, Mr Odembo said, noting that he has a background in community organising through his founding directorship of the Ufadhili Trust, a Nairobi-based NGO that promotes social action in East Africa.

Asked when President Obama might be expected to make good on his promise to visit his father’s homeland, Mr Odembo said: “One of my major goals is to see that he goes to Kenya before the end of 2011”.

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