Why Kenya's pride in Obama victory is tempered

This is a bittersweet moment for Kenyans. There is considerable joy at the achievements of Mr Obama, who makes no secret of his East African heritage. But that pride is tempered by a measure of shame that he would have had a hard time attaining the highest office in the land of his father, simply because of his ethnic roots.

Barack Obama Senior belonged to the Luo community - one of Kenya's most marginalised groups – and his son's elevation to the White House has triggered a national debate on the invidious role of ethnicity in Kenyan political life.

The Luos' troubles go back to the post-independence period and a bitter falling out between Kenya's first two political heavyweights president Jomo Kenyatta (a member of the country's biggest ethnic group the Kikuyu) and his Vice President Jaramogi Odinga (a Luo), which resulted in a period of sustained political persecution of the Luo.

The differences that presaged the estrangement were partly ideological: Kenyatta favoured free market economics while Odinga was a supporter of the communist bloc. In truth, though, many historians put the dispute between the two erstwhile pre-independence allies down to a struggle for resources between the various ethnic elites.

The 1969 assassination of the charismatic Luo minister Tom Mboya - seen by many as a future president - served to harden the ethnic differences. It was Mboya who together with prominent African-American leaders and with the support of JFK organised the student airlifts that took Obama's father to the US for his college studies. When Barack Senior returned home, he was confronted by the ugly realities of ethnic parochialism.

Those differences still haunt Kenya. Today, there is ample evidence that the persistent skewed allocation of state resources has led to stark inequalities that breed resentment in those regions that do not enjoy the favour of the presidency. Government figures show that a Kenyan born in Luoland today can expect to live 16 years less than one born in Kikuyuland.

These inequalities set the stage for the vicious fighting that rocked Kenya earlier this year after what was seen as rigging by the Kikuyu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, to stave off the challenge of the opposition's man Raila Odinga, a Luo.

But the election of Obama, a black man of Luo descent, in America could yet set the stage for a reversal of this approach. When the dust has settled on the vast expectations that Obama's election has raised, many hope his lasting legacy in Kenya will be a realisation that one's ethnic identity should not be the primary factor in deciding one's eligibility to lead.

The writer is an editor with the Nation Media Group in Nairobi

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