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Obama and the Kenya Deception

June 9, 2008

The transparency website Wikileaks today released a document debunking claims that a Kenyan politician close to Senator Barack Obama sought votes by virtually pledging to turn the Christian country into a militant Muslim stronghold.

Dated August 29, 2007, the document is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Kenya’s National Muslim Leaders’ Forum; in the MOU, Odinga pledges to look into the case of 100 Kenyans who were illegally renditioned to places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Somalia, and Ethiopia in January and February 2007. Wikileaks also released a followup letter and the names of witnesses to the signing of the document.

Last fall, a forged version of the MOU was circulated in the leadup to the presidential election in Kenya alleging a number of preposterous claims about Odinga. Rather than pledging, for instance, to look into the case of Abdulmalik Mohamed, a Kenyan held at Guantanamo, and others like him, the forged MOU alleged that Odinga had virtually agreed to turn Kenya into a new Saudi Arabia: allowing for Sharia Law, banning alcohol, mandating Muslim dress codes and so on. The document is significant for a number of reasons, in the United States because it re-contextualizes Senator Obama’s relationship with his ancestral homeland (on his father’s side) and with Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. For Kenyans, it is significant in that it corrects a lie about the prime minister that put him at odds with his voters.

Wikileaks published the first document on its website, listing it as a likely fake on November 14, 2007. It was not hard to debunk it.

    “Most of the pledges [in the fake] couldn’t be met by any presidential candidate,” Wikileaks wrote, “as they are inherently unconstitutional and would mightily annoy the non-Muslim majority in Kenya… The idea behind the smear is to turn a fairly large and committed evangelical Christian block against poor Raila, who is often accused of ambivalent religious allegiance.”

Wikileaks’s analysis aside, it doesn’t take very advanced math, wikipedia or googling skills to recognize that risking up to 80% of the vote (Kenya’s Christian majority) to cater to a minority of 10% (its Muslims) doesn’t add up. But writers like the New York Sun‘s Daniel Johnson fell hard for the fake. Senator Obama had just been to Kenya a year before and is a member of the same tribe (the 3 million strong Luo) as Raila Odinga; smelling an easy take down, Johnson swung.

Here’s Johnson, two full months after Wikileaks first outed the document as probably a fake:

    “In August 2006, Mr. Obama visited Kenya and spoke in support of Mr. Odinga’s candidacy at rallies in Nairobi. The Web site Atlas Shrugs has even posted a photograph of the two men side by side. More recently, Mr. Odinga says that Mr. Obama interrupted his campaigning in New Hampshire to have a telephone conversation with his African cousin about the constitutional crisis in Kenya.”

Titled “The Kenya Connection,” Johnson’s piece ends with no shortage of conspiratorial drama and bravado: “If Mr. Obama did not know about Mr. Odinga’s electoral deal with the Kenyan Islamists when he offered his support, then he should have known. If he did know, then he is guilty of lending the prestige of his office to America’s enemies in the global war on terror. We need to know exactly what Mr. Obama knew about Mr. Odinga, and precisely when he knew it.”

The same question must now be asked of journalists like Mr. Johnson. Wikileaks calls the fake MOU part of a “plot to frame Odinga and Obama” and notes that their calling the document a fake “did not stop Kenyan and US proponents of the document deliberately avoiding the WikiLeaks analysis by linking directly to the memorandum, as opposed to its description page [where it was plainly described as fake].” Unless the Sun slipped in a stealth update, Mr. Johnson chose not to link to the Wikileaks site at all. I think the New York Sun has some questions to answer about the veracity of its reporting, the rigorousness of its fact checking, and the integrity of its enterprise.

–Joel Whitney

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