Former Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga addressed members of the Boston University community Thursday about the current state of affairs in Africa, describing a troubling present but optimistic future.
“I’m talking as an Afro-optimist … as opposed to an Afro-pessimist,” Odinga said during his address. “Afro-optimists are those people who have confidence and believe that Africa can deliver. The pessimist believes that Africa is a lost cause.”
Odinga addressed attendees at a luncheon organized by BU’s African Presidential Center, which was hosted at BU’s Photonics Center.
APC Director Charles Stith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, introduced Odinga by speaking about Odinga’s decision to accept defeat in the presidential elections he narrowly lost earlier this year.
“Often eras are defined by who wins, but I think history might well record that the person who did more to save and anchor Kenya in democracy will be this gentleman, His Excellency Raila Odinga, for the very gracious way that he conceded the election and honored the decision of their courts,” Stith said.
During his address, Odinga said current difficulties in Africa arise from a resurgence of undemocratic practices among African leaders he referred to as “dinosaurs.”
“The dinosaurs are inventing new tricks of survival,” he said. “They are rewriting progressive constitutions to give themselves more power and longer terms while all the time tightening their grip on their nations.”
The current leaders in Africa are evolving much like the state of affairs in Kenya, Odinga said. The leaders have adapted to meet international standards by organizing periodic elections that they cannot lose.
“Today, the threat of violence hangs over almost every election in Africa,” he said. “Presidential elections are once again becoming fearsome games in which the winners take all and where the losers lose everything.”
Odinga said he has been criticized for his efforts to prevent Kenya from fraternizing with governments such as these.
“This does not mean that I stand against the unity of the African people and the African states,” he said. “I believe Africa has suffered gross injustices. I believe we must stand with one another in Africa to tackle our challenges together. In fact, I am the product and the beneficiary of an Africa that once stood together.”
Odinga said he appealed to the Kenyan judiciary after losing the most recent election to challenge the results, but judges decided to let the results stand.
“When the judiciary, in a surprise way, gave the ruling that they did, we felt that we needed to accept the verdict of the judiciary although we did not agree with it,” Odinga said. “Just like [former U.S. presidential candidate] Al Gore.”
APC Programs Coordinator Samantha Weinberg said she was pleased with Odinga’s address.
“One of the missions at our center is to help convey the idea that Africa is more than just a sum of its problems, and we feel that having these open dialogues and discussions and just putting the information out there is a way of help make that happen,” she said.
Odinga was able to share his views with attendees about the current state of Kenya as well as Kenya’s future, Weinberg said.
“He has a very unique perspective on the continent from his experiences in Kenya,” she said. “He is someone who has run for president twice in Kenya but has gracefully conceded both times. That says a lot about him and about his view point on the importance of the democratic process.”
School of Public Health first-year graduate student Casi Kadangs, who attended the discussion, said Odinga is still relevant to Africans regardless of whether he decides to return to politics.
“He has a lot of experience that I think the current leaders in Kenya could learn from and also other African leaders,” she said.
Sarah Jacobson, another School of Social Work first-year graduate student who was present at Odinga’s address, said she enjoyed the opportunity to have an open dialogue with him and other attendees.
“It’s in interactions like this where you start to meet people and you get to connect, interact and find these different contacts and possibilities both for him, for us, for the African Presidential Center to bring opportunities together,” she said.