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Ruto and Abdikadir proved Kenyan media is free

By Kodi Barth

Citizen TV’s Ayub Abdikadir grilled his own president at the White House. That was not by accident, was it? Which African president would have allowed that?

US President Joe Biden and his guest, President William Ruto, held a joint press conference. Ruto was on a rare state visit to the USA, the first by an African president in 16 years. All mainstream US news channels were in the house, covering it live. There’s no bigger world stage than that. 

NBC News would post the entire session on YouTube the same day, May 24, titled, “LIVE: Biden holds press conference with president of Kenya”.

Biden took the first couple of questions before turning it over to Ruto.

President Ruto, seemingly reading from his notepad, said: “Let me ask Ayub Abdikadir from Kenya for the next question.”

Now, everyone following the Kenyan media back home knows that Abdikadir does not ask warm-up questions. If you give him a mic, you’re asking for war. He’ll hit you with the hardest question possible.

Did Ruto really want Abdikadir to be the Kenyan reporter asking him a question at the White House?

Abdikadir had a question on Haiti.

He started with the host: “President Biden, isn’t it ironic that while America is ending its forever wars [in the world], you’re committing Kenya to another foreign war 12,000 kilometres from Nairobi? Why?”

The United States is understood to be the lead sponsor of a multi-state force, to be led by Kenya, that is about to attempt returning order to the long troubled, now lawless Caribbean island in America’s backyard.

That question put Biden on the defensive, forcing him to admit that no empire can win a war in a country like Afghanistan, where, true, he withdrew US troops in 2021. America had to restrategise how to defeat ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group born after America killed Osama bin Laden.

But Abdikadir saved the hardest follow-up for his own president.

“Schools in West Pokot, Baringo and Turkana have not yet opened because of bandits. Yet, you are committing our police to Haiti. Where is the priority? Why are you committing to Haiti when we have a problem back home? Why do you want to put out fire at a faraway neighbour’s home, when your own home is on fire?”

You could have heard a pin drop. You would think that question came from a New York Times reporter. Abdikadir might as well have just called his own president, hypocrite, right in the White House.

Danial arap Moi must have turned in his grave.

But the late President Moi’s one-time protégé, Ruto, calmly answered, with numbers, how Kenyan forces had a long tradition of peacekeeping around the world – in 47 countries, he said. And how his government was making progress on crushing banditry back home.

Ruto’s most memorable answer, however, went to the first question to Biden. Was the USA enticing Kenya into a foreign war? (“Enticing” is our word. Abdikadir might have said, “bribing”.)

“I am the President of Kenya,” Ruto said. “I get to decide!”

Bam!

Let’s talk optics. It is a fair guess that this scenario would make all of the president’s handlers mad with rage.

In any African country, in this age, this would still be seen as grave, unforgivable disrespect. Lack of hygiene. Washing dirty linen in public. You could hear sycophants mutter under their breath. Why are you sucking up to the West? Cheap shot at what, short fame in journalism? Punching above your weight, man!

On the flip side, this may have been the single biggest shot of credibility for freedom of the press in Kenya.

Frankly, how many foreign journalists, even from South America, Asia, or Eastern Europe, would have been allowed by their countries to ask a question like that – at the White House?

So, both Ruto and Abdikadir showed unprecedented courage, in allowing and asking such questioning, respectively.

And look, both had unspoken confidence in each other. 

Ruto knows Abdikadir’s combative, unbowed style of interviewing. Yet, Ruto flew the reporter with him in the presidential aircraft to America. And then, the President deliberately pointed to him to ask the first question.

No chance that was a coincidence.

President Ruto and Abdikadir have sparred before at press conferences in Nairobi. Both knew the other could handle this on a world stage. Abdikadir showed that Kenyan media was brave, independent. The President showed he was not thin skinned.

Of course, all of this could have been premier league geopolitics, carefully choreographed by President Ruto.

What better stage to tell the world, look, you can trust me! I am a different kind of African leader. Come, do business with Kenya. You will get strong, credible, transparent leadership.

Regardless, both Ruto and Abdikadir sent to the world the strongest message yet that press freedom in Kenya had come of age.

Kodi Barth holds a Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia University, New York.

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