NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened a seven-nation tour of Africa Wednesday with strong words for a strong ally. Kenya, she said, has failed to solve the problems that caused last year's election crisis and continues to be plagued by corruption and violence.
After meeting the rivals in that disputed election — President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, now the prime minister — Clinton criticized Kenya's ruling coalition for rejecting calls for an independent tribunal to try perpetrators of post-election violence, which left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead.
While Clinton stopped short of publicly threatening sanctions or other penalties against Kenyan officials, she said the lack of accountability jeopardized Kenya's position as the powerhouse of East Africa and a frontline state against Islamic extremists next door in Somalia.
"The absence of strong and effective democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence, human rights abuses and a lack of respect for the rule of law," Clinton said. "These conditions helped fuel the election violence and continue to hold Kenya back."
U.S. officials have billed Clinton's Africa tour as a sign that the Obama administration is committed to forging a renewed relationship with Africa, based on free trade, economic empowerment and political responsibility. Just hours earlier, opening a major U.S.-Africa trade summit in the same conference center, Clinton told delegates from across the continent, "We want to be your partner, not your patron."
It took just a short while for those ambitions to be overshadowed by Kenya's domestic problems. They're the same kinds of problems — stubborn leaders, weak justice systems, a culture of impunity — that have bedeviled the U.S.-Africa relationship for years.
Kenya may be home to the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in Africa and recipient of some $1 billion annually in U.S. aid, but its leaders don't take kindly to criticism. In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama, visiting the country where his father was born, annoyed Kenyan elites when he gave a speech urging them to end tribalism and build strong political institutions.
Following the election violence, which fell almost entirely along tribal lines, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded Kibaki to bring Odinga and his allies into a coalition government. During the past year, however, many Kenyans have begun to view both men as satisfied with their power and eager to ride out their terms in office until the next elections, in 2012.
Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, said that Kibaki and Odinga "assured the secretary of state that reforms are on course, that the war against impunity is on, that the war against corruption is on."
The mood was slightly warmer than the night before. Hours before Clinton landed Tuesday, U.S. officials in Kenya issued their strongest statement to date on the need for a tribunal, questioning the willingness of Kenyan leaders to implement reforms. Odinga responded by saying that Kenyans "don't need lectures on how to govern ourselves" from Western countries.
"I can personally attest that political rivals can become productive partners in the service of the country and people they love," she said.
On Thursday, Clinton is scheduled to speak at a town hall-style forum at the University of Nairobi and meet the visiting president of Somalia, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, before departing by plane for South Africa — where the issue of resolving the political crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe awaits.
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