Distinguished Guests, Ladies & Gentlemen,
Good morning. It’s a great pleasure to be with you today to help launch the National Dialogue Conference. Leaders from the religious and business communities, from civil society and from government – including many of you here — have been at the forefront of promoting an inclusive, nationwide process to address enduring challenges in Kenyan society. This dialogue is critically important to the future of your country. I commend you all for your commitment.
Since before independence, Kenyans have worked and struggled to secure their freedom and democracy. From the period of colonialism, through years of single-party government, and then the horrific violence of 2007-2008, Kenyans have stepped up time and again to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure liberty, advance democracy, and win fundamental rights. Kenyans, rightly, honor and respect the sacrifices that were made. As the result of them, across the decades, Kenya has taken big strides. Your 2010 constitution is a truly remarkable document. It reinvented government, devolving power and setting up independent branches that act as a check on the abuse of authority. Your constitution guarantees the rule of law and the fundamental rights of all Kenyans. It is a powerful statement of the commitment of the Kenyan people to, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
But all democracies, including my own, face challenges living up to the ideal. How we handle them – how we protect and strengthen democracy – matters. All of us here know the challenges that Kenya faced during the 2017 election. There was deeply troubling interference in the work of the IEBC, attacks on the judiciary, civil society and the media, and, of course, terrible violence, including the murder of an IEBC official. All of these put Kenya’s constitution and democracy at serious risk.
But, Kenyan wisdom prevailed. The United States strongly welcomed the handshake on March 9 between President Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Odinga. Their commitment to work together was an impressive demonstration of leadership and immediately lowered the political temperature. The memorandum the two leaders issued that day launched the Building Bridges Initiative. The challenges the memorandum raises are real. Corruption, ethnically-driven politics, attacks on institutions, political violence, inequities, these are all deeply serious problems. While these problems were laid bare in the last election, they are long-standing. Now is the time to address them. Now is the time for action.
Over the years, Kenya has faced moments of crisis when real change was needed and possible. This is, again, such a moment. I urge Kenyans to seize it. While the two leaders and the BBI team have a special responsibility to do so, this is also an opportunity for all Kenyans. It is moment when you can make your voices heard, answer the challenges posed by the last election, strengthen your democracy, and ensure your rights.
That is why this meeting is so important. Your dialogue can move Kenya forward. To do so, it should address the real issues and it should be broadly inclusive — giving everyone — an opportunity to be heard. It is particularly important that women, youth, and people with disabilities are included in the dialogue. As you hold your discussions, you are not alone. The United States and other members of the international community will be your partners. We stood shoulder to shoulder with Kenya through the restoration of multiparty democracy, the tragedies of 2007-2008, the promise of the 2010 constitution, and the difficulties of recent elections. We will continue to be here as your friends. We will do all we can to help. But make no mistake: this dialogue must be Kenyan-owned. Kenyans alone can lead it, and Kenyans alone can make the decisions that will solve the problems.
Throughout my time here, I have been constantly impressed by the passionate commitment of Kenyans to democracy and their constitution. This passion is one reason why Kenya matters so much to Americans. We share essential values. Today, the eyes of the United States and all democratic nations are on you. How you – your leaders and fellow Kenyans – answer the enduring challenges will have an impact on your country and its future. At this moment, you have an opportunity to take your country forward and to inspire and shape the future of Africa and the world. We stand with you and with all Kenyans who seek to deepen democracy, protect fundamental rights, and ensure the rule of law.
Pamoja tusonge mbele.