Obama warns Kenya to clean up corruption — again

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WASHINGTON — Visiting Kenya for the first time as president, Barack Obama returned to his father’s homeland to warn Saturday that pervasive corruption was the biggest impediment to the growth of that East African nation.

Not highlighted in much of the coverage was that this was the second time Obama told Kenyans directly that graft was holding them back. On Saturday, as he did on Aug. 28, 2006, Obama talked about Chicago’s struggles with corrupt pols and police.

Going a step further, on Saturday Obama even invoked Al Capone, the mobster universally associated with Chicago, apparently in perpetuity.

When Obama was a U.S. senator from Illinois, he visited Kenya in August 2006, the highlight of a trip to Africa that also included stops in South Africa, Djibouti and Chad.

OPINION

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I was one of the reporters covering Obama’s African swing, coming as Obama and his team were in the early stages of plotting a 2008 White House run.

I reported on how the senator was greeted as a head of state in Kenya, given his ties to the country. I thought this gave Obama — and his staffers — a sense of what could be in his future.

It was during a speech on Aug. 28, 2006, at the University of Nairobi that Obama deplored corruption and tribalism. He very publicly criticized the administration of then Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki for tolerating the corruption that infested the entire political system.

“My own city of Chicago, Illinois, has been the home of some of the most corrupt local politics in American history over the years,” Obama said then, “from patronage machines to questionable elections.”

As bad as things were in Chicago, corruption was at epidemic levels in Kenya.

“Here in Kenya, there is a crisis — a crisis that’s robbing an honest people of the opportunities they fought for,” he said then.

But those were words of advice from a mere American-born senator, no matter that he was wildly popular and treated in Kenya as a native son.

Nine years later, Obama, now president, was once more visiting the land of his father’s birth. He was again condemning corruption. Now his words carried more weight.

At a joint news conference in Nairobi with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama said: “The fact that doing business and ordinary people just moving along in their lives here is constantly sapped by corruption at a high level and at a low level.

“International businesses are concerned if the price of investing in Kenya is 5 percent or 10 percent going to someplace that doesn’t have to do with the project. It’s just a math issue,” Obama said.

“And I think President Kenyatta is serious about going after this. As I indicated to him, if you look at the history of this — because the United States had, in the past, all kinds of corruption, dating back to the founding of the country. My hometown of Chicago was famous for Al Capone and bootleggers and bribery and police on the take.

“But what we were able to show is that over time, when people of integrity at the highest levels say this is a priority, we’re going to stop this, and are willing to hold people at the highest levels accountable and not just the small-time corruption, that begins to change the culture,” Obama said.

Obama and Kenyatta agreed to and released a 29-point plan to reduce corruption in Kenya.

FLASHBACK: In 2006, Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha joined Obama in Kenya, as did pal Anita Blanchard, her daughters Roxanne and Maxine and sister Janice. I remember seeing them at a tree planting in Nairobi with Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental activist Wangari Maathai, who died in 2011.

Blanchard’s husband is Marty Nesbitt, who went on to become the treasurer of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and now is the chief of the Barack Obama Foundation.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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