United States President Barack Obama urged the people of Kenya, the birthplace of his late father, to avoid violence and intimidation in the upcoming March elections and seize the historic opportunity to stand together, as a nation, for peace, and progress for the rule of law.

While the videotaped remarks may not rank as high in importance as the maiden speech he delivered on African soil in Ghana’s capital Accra, his considerable popularity in Kenya makes his message all the more significant for both the people and the leaders.  The address is President Obama’s way of leveraging America’s soft power in achieving one of his administration’s core national security interest as well as moral responsibility: preventing mass atrocities and genocide.

The President showcased his strong ties with the people of Kenya with the Swahili greeting “Habari yako,” and commended the progress made since the post-electoral violence.

“After the turmoil of five years ago, you’ve worked to rebuild communities, reform institutions and pass a new constitution,” he said.

But he acknowledged worrying trends that threaten the nation’s political stability and economic prosperity.

“We all know what makes for successful elections. Kenyans must reject intimidation and violence, and allow a free and fair vote. Kenyans must resolve disputes in the courts, not in the streets,” he added.

President Obama’s message to the people and leaders is as timely and as it is important. According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), tension in Kenya has risen sharply and pre-election violence has worsened. More deaths have occurred over the past few months than in the time preceding the 2007 polls. The address also sends a clear message that to the Kenyan people and their leaders that watching is paying close attention to the upcoming elections.

While initiatives to prevent another crisis are underway at the local and international level, there are opportunities for the U.S. government to help make further violence less likely. As advanced by our partner FCNL, below are relevant policy recommendations for the U.S. government.

What Can the Administration Do?

  1. Establish a clear, comprehensive plan of response for potential outcomes in Kenya;
  2. Order a U.S.-funded medium-term observation mission as soon as possible and coordinate closely with other international and domestic observers;
  3. Ensure that current counter terror and security assistance does not contribute to human rights abuses and ethnic religious profiling. Continue to press the Kenyan government to develop an immediate, medium-term electoral plan for police that focuses on civilian protection and violence prevention, and emphasize that aid will be withheld in the event of violations.

What Can the 113th Congress Do?

  1. Introduce or cosponsor resolutions calling on the U.S. government to ensure that U.S. policy supports Kenyan efforts toward peace;
  2. Hold hearings on the potential for—and any reports of—violence in Kenya and encourage awareness among congressional colleagues as the elections approach and move forward;
  3. Closely monitor U.S. policy toward Kenya for any potential harm with regard to U.S. security assistance.

President Obama called on Kenyans to seize the moment to unite and show the world that they are a citizen of a great and proud nation. He insisted that those willing to walk the path progress will continue to have a strong friend and partner in America.

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