The campaign that ends on Tuesday has produced little evidence that Kenya has heeded his advice. In recent days, the campaign has been marked by a break-in at the vice president’s country estate, the killing and possible torture of a senior election official, and reports of plans to rig the vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta and stage an armed raid on one of the opposition’s tallying centers. Talk of “fake news” has flavored the campaign debate as international observers, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, seek to ensure a fair vote.
Credit Fredrik Lerneryd/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Obama expressed disappointment in the campaign so far. “In Kenya’s election we have already seen too much incitement and appeals based on fear from all sides,” he said. “But I also know that the Kenyan people as a whole will be the losers if there is a descent into violence. You can make clear that you will reject those that want to deal in tribal and ethnic hatred.”
A violent reaction seems like a real possibility given Kenya’s recent history. After a disputed election in 2007 in which the opposition leader Raila Odinga lost, spasms of violence left at least 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced from their homes. In 2013, after Mr. Odinga lost again, this time to Mr. Kenyatta, he claimed he had been robbed of victory.
Mr. Odinga, a former prime minister, is running again, his fourth campaign for the presidency, and he and Mr. Kenyatta were virtually tied in recent polls. In a country riven by tribal rivalries, Mr. Kenyatta, 55, has the support of many Kikuyus and Kalenjins, while Mr. Odinga, 72, is strong among the Luos, Luhyas and Kambas.
Mr. Obama, whose father was Luo, urged Kenyans to put those divisions aside. “The choices you make in the coming days can either set Kenya back or bring it together,” he said. “As a friend of the Kenyan people, I urge you to work for a future defined not by fear and division, but by unity and hope.”
Analysts said many Kenyans would pay attention, even if there are limits to Mr. Obama’s influence. “Will Obama’s statement shift behaviors in Kenya? No,” said William M. Bellamy, a former ambassador to Kenya who is now a professor of international relations at Simmons College. “But it provides a basis for judging the success or failure of these elections.” The standard set by the president and international observers, he added, “will have a big impact on how Kenyans themselves assess the validity of their elections.”
The former president’s decision to speak out on Kenya’s election was a striking departure from his general approach since leaving the White House. He has remained largely out of the issues in Washington as Mr. Trump seeks to unravel much of his predecessor’s legacy. Although Mr. Obama has issued written statements at critical moments in the debate over replacing his health care program, he has for the most part left it to his former advisers and other Democrats to wage a rear-guard battle on behalf of his programs and policies.
“President Obama has a unique stature in Kenya and has issued similar statements about past Kenyan elections,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama. “The stakes are enormously high as there is a grave risk of violence and instability around the election, and it’s important for the Kenyan people to hear his voice at this pivotal moment.”