NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden played up his ties to his boss Wednesday before a crowd that considers President Barack Obama a native son, then urged Kenyans to reach for "transformative change," echoing a campaign slogan that carried Obama to the White House.
Kenya goes to the polls in August to vote for a new constitution, and though Biden said the U.S. was not pushing Kenyans to vote for or against it, he made it clear which outcome he would prefer.
"You have before you a singular opportunity to strengthen Kenya's democratic institutions," he said. "The United States strongly supports the process of constitutional reform."
Obama, whose father was born in Kenya and studied in the United States, is a common sight in Kenya. His face adorns T-shirts and is painted on the sides of the raucous minibus taxis that rule the road. Wangari Maathai, Kenya's only Nobel laureate who introduced the vice president, asked Biden to tell Obama "that we love him."
The vice president took the cue.
"Hello my name is Joe Biden. I work for Barack Obama," Biden said as he took the stage at Nairobi's convention center. Then he launched into a one-man good-cop, bad-cop routine.
He lavished praise on sub-Saharan Africa's largest non-oil, non-mineral based economy, a country that has become the financial and political capital of East Africa. But he said Kenya has been held back by corruption and a government that has not held any high level officials to account for crime.
"Too many times Kenya has been divided against itself, torn apart by ethnic tensions and manipulated by leaders who placed their own interests above the interests of their country," Biden said.
More than 1,000 people were killed in violence that followed a disputed 2007 presidential election. The International Criminal Court is investigating the leaders of that violence, and the court's prosecutor has indicated he may indict several top officials, including Cabinet members, for orchestrating the attacks.
Biden said political reform and the new constitution can help the country improve transparency and accountability. The new constitution would reduce executive power, something Biden said he would like to see.
Activists and politicians have lobbied for Kenya's constitution to be rewritten because the enormous power the president holds is thought to be at the root of the country's inequalities, and fueled the post-election violence.
"Dare to reach for transformative change, the kind of change that might come around only once in a lifetime," Biden said.
Though the U.S. may not want to say outright that Kenyans should vote for the draft constitution, U.S. officials are encouraging Kenyans to vote wisely, said Tiberius Barasa, a Kenyan governance expert.
"The USA is being like a big brother. It is trying to show Kenya that you can also grow, you know, and we are here, we can support you," said Barasa.
Biden also met with Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, a region that in January is scheduled to hold a vote that could see the south break away from the north, potentially forming the world's newest country.
The vice president began his three-African nation tour on Monday in Egypt where he met with that country's leader, Hosni Mubarak. On Thursday he will fly to South Africa for the opening of the World Cup.
Associated Press writer Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.