Tuesday, September 22, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi Kenya
September 22, 2009

It is only in politics where a dignitary can be invited for a meal and then be “disinvited” then re-invited within hours.

This is the story of President Obama and Prime Minister Raila Odinga that kept tongues wagging for the better part of the long weekend Idd holidays. It is the stuff that makes headlines even in some of the most respected media in Kenya.

However, before I discuss the merits and demerits of highlighting such a basic matter as an invitation to dinner between two relatives such as Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, let me revisit a more or less similar episode that took place in Rome sometime last year.

In the Rome incident, President Robert Mugabe had gone to the Italian City to address the World Food Program summit in his capacity as the Head of State and Chairman of the COMESA group of countries in Africa. Unfortunately for Mugabe, little did he know that the host country; a member of the European Union had planned a humiliating parting shot for him. It did not help matters that at that time, Mugabe’s regime had become extremely violent with opposition politicians to the extent that his soldiers and supporters could unleash terror on them at the slightest provocation.

When Mugabe arrived in Rome with his beautiful wife Grace, Zimbabweans back home were enjoying inflation rate in billions. Bank notes were seven to ten figures up. The economy was on its knees and millions literally starved for a day’s meal.

It was this scenario that informed authorities in Rome to delete Mugabe’s name from the list of VIPs for the farewell state banquet! And nobody had the kindness to tell Mugabe of this omission on time. He learnt about it through the press! Their argument was that there was no point in lavishing the Mugabes with wines and sumptuous meals while back home he was starving his own people to death! Therefore, if Obama had to decline to invite Raila Odinga to his dinner, Raila Odinga would not be the first African senior politician to be subjected to such discrimination on account of bad governance.

However, what is intriguing is why the media had to blow the Raila-Obama saga out of proportion! Why was it necessary for Raila to be invited, disinvited then re-invited to the same Obama function?

Knowing the American State Department, I don’t think they were the authors of such careless diplomatic mischief. Americans are more meticulous when it comes to such matters. They decide these little things many months ahead of time.

Remember during Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the whole world knew that foreign heads of state would not be invited but would be represented by their ambassadors in Washington. President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga did not go to Washington. The few cabinet ministers who thought Americans were joking and ventured into Washington had to contend with watching the event from their hotel rooms.

What was curious were the conflicting reports from the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya’s Washington Office and of course our New York Office. How come they were all in agreement that Raila had been disinvited only for the State Department to rubbish such rumors?

Who stood to gain if Raila was excluded from the Obama list of African Heads of State? Isn’t is normal international practice that when a head of state appoints one of his assistants or even a foreign minister to represent him or her at international summits, such an appointee is accorded the status of leader of delegation and substantive representative of that particular head of state?

There is no denying that President Obama has been unhappy with our government performance, especially with its slow pace of reforms. It is also true that he gave Kenya, his fatherland a miss when he first visited Africa as President of the United States of America. However, these are not reason enough for the media to drive a wedge between Kenya and the United States. In any case, Raila Odinga was in the US to attend the UN General Assembly at the request of his president, not the US president.

The way I see it; our media would do us proud if they interrogated foreign governments whenever they subject our leaders to unwarranted diplomatic fiascos the way Western media protect their own rather than jump to the rooftops to celebrate our leaders’ discomfort.

The Obama –Raila fiasco was a test case for the newly hired public relations company in Washington. Where was the company when Dennis Onyango, Raila Odinga’s press officer, our missions in Washington and New York and the American Embassy in Nairobi were escalating the already embarrassing situation?

It made me believe in my earlier misgivings about hiring foreigners to clean up our mess. They will never do it for anything else except cash.