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Problems overseas crowd out interest in U.S. election

Sunday, January 6, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: It’s hard to realize that tonight (Jan. 3) is the beginning of the 2008 presidential election campaign. After all the speech making, touring, advertising, debating and endless press coverage, a few hundred thousand Iowans will hold meetings, called caucuses, to decide whom they would like to head the Republican and Democratic tickets in the November election. The results will be a harbinger as to how the general election may go 10 months from now. We’re going to talk about how two countries view the United States’ election campaign. The people of Afghanistan must certainly be interested. They would like to know how a new leader in Washington would view the civil war in that country. In Kenya, a presidential election was held last week, and there has been a tragic outbreak in violence over charges of fraud. Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan goat farmer, is one of the top Democratic candidates. Before we discuss the U.S. campaign, let’s first talk about the outbreak of violence in Kenya. What’s the situation now?

Shashank Bengali, bureau chief, McClatchy Newspapers, Nairobi, Kenya: The outbreak of violence in Kenya has stunned people across the country and in much of Africa. Kenya is known for having beautiful safari parks and being a relatively stable country. But last week’s presidential election, which has been described by independent observers as deeply flawed, has thrown the country into turmoil. We’ve had a political crisis and tribal violence. Supporters of the president, Mwai Kibaki, who is believed to have won the vote by rigging the results in his district, are squaring off against members of rival tribes who believe that Kibaki’s group has had too much political power in Kenya for too long.

Loory: An independent Kenya was born in violence. There is talk that this could signal a return to the brutal violence that took place during the rebellion against the British government. Is that possible?

Bengali: Many people say this is the worst fighting they’ve seen since the days of independence back in the 1950s with the Mau Mau rebellion and grisly outbreaks of violence. Now we’re seeing Kenyan-on-Kenyan violence. Neighbors who live side by side in slum neighborhoods and ethnically mixed towns and villages are turning on each other because of political differences. Members of the Kikuyu group, the largest group, are the targets of attacks by the ethnic group of the main challenger, who is a Luo. Some Americans may know that as the tribal group of Obama’s father. Kenya has 42 tribes, and the Luo is one of the larger of the minority tribes. We’re seeing Kikuyus versus Luos, and there is fear in communities that have been peaceful for so long.

Loory: President Kibaki has been asked and has refused to do a recount and to work towards a settlement with his opposition. Will he relent?

Bengali: We’ve seen few moves of reconciliation from Kibaki or his supporters. They believe they won the election fair and square and have refused calls for compromise. The challengers are also stubborn because they believe they’ve won. Kibaki has called the opposition leader to have meetings with him at the Kenya State House, the seat of government, and he has refused, saying he doesn’t want to negotiate about power sharing with a man the opposition calls a thief.

Loory: Let’s talk about the American election. Obama is the son of a Kenyan farmer. Does that create much interest in the U.S. election in Kenya?

Bengali: It certainly does. Before the Kenyan vote and this violence, the second most talked about election in Kenya was the American election. For months, people have been salivating over the prospect of having a Luo president in America and perhaps having a Luo president in Kenya, in Raila Odinga. There has been talk of a Washington-Nairobi axis and the great things that could bring. It’s pretty fanciful and lots of people have their tongues in their cheeks when they mention that, but there is speculation about what an Obama presidency could mean for Kenya and for Africa.

Loory: What do the people of Afghanistan hope for from the U.S. presidential election?

Kamran Mir Hazar, editor, Kabul Press, India: In Afghanistan, there are lots of issues. There are crimes against humanity, war crimes, corruption and suicide bombers. People are thinking about those issues, and they aren’t thinking so much about the U.S. election. When we get nearer to the U.S. election, people will think about who will become the president because the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, cannot drink even a glass of water without the U.S. president’s permission.

Loory: Is there a feeling that when a new U.S. president is elected support for Karzai will be withdrawn?

Hazar: People think it’s a joke when the U.S. president says we bring democracy and peace in Afghanistan. When the U.S. ambassador meets with warlords or criminals, people wonder, is this the president who brings democracy to Afghanistan? It’s not different for Afghans regarding who becomes the president because people think the U.S. is trying for its benefit and not for the benefit of Afghans.

Loory: How well is Obama known in Kenya?

Bengali: Obama has been to Kenya a couple of times, including last year. He went to his father’s village in western Kenya where he received a warm reception. People lined the streets and chanted his name. In Nairobi, he was a political leader, meeting with presidents and with journalists. He gave a speech on the dangers of tribal violence in Kenya, which looking at what’s happening now, was fairly advanced.

Loory: Are the other candidates getting much attention?

Bengali: There’s an awareness the race is going on, but Kenyans are not tuned in to the nitty gritty except for Obama and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton is remembered a great deal because Kenyans saw him as someone who had compassion for Africans. They’ve seen him do a lot of work on HIV/AIDS and he’s been to many African countries, so people like the Clinton name and they appreciate Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. People are less familiar with the Republican side, but they’re aware that this election will end Bush’s tenure. Whether they like Bush or not, Kenyans are interested in the idea of term limits. They’re encouraged that countries have limits because in Africa people tend to overstay their welcome. African presidents go on for 30 or 40 years, extending their tenure, extending the constitution.

Loory: Afghanistan has not been much of an issue in this campaign. How do the people of Afghanistan feel about that?

Hazar: For Afghans, the Democratic or the Republican side isn’t that important because they’ve experienced people from both sides. During the Taliban regime, people from the Democratic side were in power. When the Republicans were in power, Afghanistan also saw lots of violence. Nothing for peace and justice happened in Afghanistan.

Loory: In two important countries, Afghanistan and Kenya, there are serious problems that take attention away from what is going on in the U.S. Although in the U.S., we tend to get all wound up in this long and clearly very difficult presidential campaign.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Cliff Ainsworth, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.


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