Obama To Kenyan Civil Society: US Will Respect Sovereignty While Pressing On Some Issues

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By Carol Lee, Pool Reporter

NAIROBI, Kenya-- President Obama entered a small room for the civil society town hall at 1:57pm. There were about 75 people seated around in a semi-circle of sorts.

He said his young African leaders initiatives is "one of my labors of love."

"I just gave a very long speech," he said.

"We saw that," a woman said.

Mr. Obama asked if she was saying his speech was too long. He said he'd make brief remarks then take some questions.

He had a list of names in his hand already. He said he'd call on the people on the list first, and if there was time he'd call on other people in the audience.

He said the US historically been a country where citizens get involved. He referenced French writer Tocqueville who wrote Democracy in America.

"Democracy does not stop on election day," Mr. Obama said. "For a real democracy to work and for a society to survive it requires people continue to participate.

Part of the reason why it's important for me to be here today is to send a message that we in the United States believe civil society is important. If Kenya can continue to cultivate those habits of participation, the country will be better off.

As a side note, pool could hear a rooster crowing in the distance about every 30 seconds, the whole time.

He said the questions are designed to give him a sense of what's important to them. He asked everybody be respectful. He said it's one of the rules of civil society. "That's part of what makes civil society works," he said - that you can have "civil" disagreements.

He said he was going to take questions and took of his jacket because he said the room was warm (it is). He also asked everyone to be brief when asking their questions.

Spellings of questioners are per the WH, which created the list of questioners for POTUS. First questioner was Tom Lalampaa of Northern Rangelands Trust, who asked about conservation:

Mr. Lalampaa talked at length. Mr. Obama said he was an eloquent spokesman for his cause but added: “Everyone’s going to have to be briefer than Tom.”

He quickly moved on to Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Trust. She also asked about wildlife and conservation. She said the wildlife is part of Africa’s heritage. She said her work led to the arrest of a major animal trafficker. She made two requests: that POTUS tell the American people not to buy ivory and that the US take a leading role in pursuing international animal traffickers with the same vigor as pursuing drug traffickers.

Obama pointed to his policy pronouncements yesterday regarding animal trafficking. He said there’s “a connection to corrupt officials getting paid, criminals being armed” and the animal trade. “Hopefully we’ll be able to influence not just what happens in the United States but in some areas where the demand is heaviest,” he said.

He then called on Kennedy Odede of Shining Hope for Communities. Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Odede’s work on girls education is close to his heart because he has two daughters, and to Michelle Obama’s heart.

Mr. Obama said organizations like Mr. Odede’s advances such causes because “people learn from seeing something succeed that people might not have believed before.”

Mr. Obama then called on Linet Nenkoitoi Momposhi of Pangani Girls Form Two (Kakenya Center of Excellence). Ms. Momposhi talked about how she got to attend a boarding school and realized all the things she could accomplish. She said she wants to set an example for girls in her community.

Mr. Obama asked her how old she is. She said she’s 16. “I’m sure you’re going to be an excellent cardiologist,” Mr. Obama said. He said civil society is so important because young people don’t know what’s possible. If they have a vision, they get motivated. He talked about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative in the US.

“Linet, you’re a very fine young woman. Congratulations. We’re very proud of you,” Mr. Obama said before moving on to a questioner who would focus on terrorism.

“One of the important lessons that we’ve learned is that you can’t just fight terrorism through the military and the police. You also have to change people’s hearts and minds and give them a sense that they are included in the society,” Mr. Obama said. He said it’s important to include civil society in the fight against terrorism.

He called on Hassan Ole Nado, SUPKEM, Deputy Secretary General. He asked Mr. Nado to explain what SUPKEM does. He said it’s an organization of Muslim organizations across Kenya that do advocacy work. He stressed the importance of young people being engaged and having something to do, so they don’t get lured into extremism. Mr. Obama agreed.

Mr. Obama then called on Fauzia Abdi Ali of Women in International Society. Mr. Obama focused on her idea of women being actively engaged in countering extremism. He said it was really important. “Mothers tend to be more sensible,” Mr. Obama said. They laughed. “I’m just telling the truth,” he said.  He said the younger children are reached out to the better. He said this requires some “peer pressure to make sure mothers are involved in steering their children.”

WH list had Mr. Obama calling on Irungu Houghton, Society for International Development, CSO Reference Group. But after Ms. Ali, he moved to open questions. He called on a woman who talked about female education.

The next questioner, also a woman, asked about terrorism and engaging local and city governments in the fight. She said she’d pick one more topic to ask about because… “Because you’re running out of time,” Mr. Obama said. She asked about Mr. Obama’s role in supporting civil society.

Mr. Obama said Kenya’s constitution lays out how the country will move forward. He said that’ll probably be open to interpretation and court challenges, but isn’t an issue the US is likely to weigh in on. He said the US government system – state, local, federal, courts – has been a constant battle for more than 200 years; specifically how much power goes to states versus federal government. He cited segregation as an example.

The challenge we would have as an outside party is that how that plays itself out within Kenya is ultimately up to the Kenyan people, Mr. Obama said. He said he wouldn’t be asking the US ambassador to Kenya to intervene in that debate.

“If you have laws that restrict people’s ability to organize and speak out peacefully … if those become too restrictive, then that in any society contradicts the basic premise of democracy,” he said.

He said he recognized some Kenyan laws that are interpreted as restricting certain groups. “We will look suspiciously on laws that say certain peaceful groups cannot operate because they might be critical of the government, for example,” he said. If it’s a violent group, he said, that’s different.

He said US will work with Kenyan government as well as NGOs and other organizations. He said US will speak out when officials see peaceful organizations under siege from the government.

He said he met with opposition leaders after his speech. He said he told them US was always going to engage Kenyan government but also others. He said one of the opposition leaders was telling him: ‘we really need you to press the Kenyan government on some issues’ – and Mr. Obama said he told him he remembered when you were in government and didn’t want the US to get involved.

He said was a time post-colonial and Cold War when big powers were interfering with business of little powers. The united States was part of that in deciding who should be in charge of other countries, he said. But that’s changing. Our policy is to respect the sovereignty of nations and to let them determine who leads their governments, he said.

He said he’ll engage governments but also speak out when he disagrees with certain practices of a government that’s a US partner. That’s true whether it’s Russia or China or some of our European allies or places like Kenya, he said.

With that, the event ended at 2:55pm.

But attendees wanted to take photographs with him. He told them that was going to be tough. He turned to his staff and asked if anyone had a suggestion. Someone said “no.” Mr. Obama came up with his own.

“Why don’t we do this – can we do it in blocks, do you think?” he asked his aides. Someone said that was possible. Mr. Obama told the standing audience that he’d need everyone to sit down in their seats. He handed a paper cup of water to Marvin Nicholson and then went around the room taking group photos.

Before he left the room he said there was just one person there he wanted to take a one-on-one photo with. That was Linet Nenkoitoi Momposhi of Pangani Girls Form Two. She stood up. He put his arm around her for the picture.

He walked out of the room, down a flight of stairs, at 2:58pm. He’s now taping the radio interview.

 

Carol Lee, The Wall Street Journal

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