After I discovered the identity of Obama's estranged half-American half-brother Mark earlier this evening, readers alerted me to the BBC story that the losing presidential candidate in the recent Kenyan elections, Raila Odinga, the Luo leader who has helped stir up so much violence (600 deaths) in the wake of his dubious defeat, today claimed he is Obama's first cousin!
Following a couple of calls from Obama, which Obama's spokesman acknowledged, Odinga asserted that he was Obama's father's sister's son.
There's certainly a striking contrast between Odinga and Obama's half-brother Mark, who has kept completely quiet about being the half-brother of one of the world's most famous men.
European monarchs were always related to each other across national boundaries, with lots of consequences. It would certainly make the future more, uh, interesting if the American and Kenyan elites were closely linked by blood.
I don't recall, however, any mention of Odinga in Obama's extended family-obsessed Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, but I haven't reviewed it thoroughly looking for him. I believe Odinga was still in prison for his part in a 1982 coup attempt when Obama first visited Kenya in 1987, so that might account for Obama not mentioning him.
Or Odinga might just be blowing smoke.
Odinga's father was the first vice-president of Kenya and then a leader of the opposition (the Luo have usually been out of luck in the ethnic struggle for power in Kenya). His name was Oginga Odinga.
The Kenyan candidate's website says that Raila Odinga's mother's name was Mary.
In Obama's book, there is a long narrative by Obama's "grandmother" (who was actually the third wife of Obama's polygamous grandfather — his real grandmother, the second wife, ran off with another man and her two children were raised by the third wife). It mentions four children of the Senator's grandfather (by his three wives), none of whom were named Mary.
So, I don't see much evidence that Odinga is Obama's first cousin or half-first cousin.
But he might be a more distant relative. As Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out, Africans tend to have an elastic sense of relatedness, depending on how much somebody can do for you. The problem with being a Big Man in Africa, according to Dalrymple, is that the number of relatives you are socially obligated to subsidize keeps expanding as fast as your power. When Odinga spoke, shortly before the actual votes were counted in New Hampshire, his fellow Luo seemed headed assuredly for becoming the Biggest Big Man in the World, so Odinga might have been speaking a little expansively about the closeness of his relationship with Obama.
Perhaps Odinga is trying to boost his political standing within Kenya by getting people to believe that it's only a matter of time before he has his kinsman, the President of the United States, on his side in his struggle. It has become common for the losing side in disputed elections to reverse the decision by overthrowing the government with the backing of the U.S., as in Serbia and Ukraine, so creating the image of being backed by America can create a sense of inevitability.
A lot of people in Kenya assume that a President Obama would intervene to help his fellow Luo finally win the power that has so long been denied them in Kenyan politics. It would be helpful if Obama issued a categorical statement that if elected, he would not intervene in Kenyan affairs. This might persuade more Luo that rather than hope for ultimate victory through the deus ex machina of President Obama, that they are going to have to work things out with their fellow Kenyans.
Obama could also play a useful or detrimental role in a larger issue involving Kenya. The U.S. has been pouring military force into Northern Kenya, near the border with Somalia, which the Pentagon sees as a crucial front in the War on Terror, as Esquire and the NY Times Magazine have reported. The Pentagon plans to have two dozen U.S. forts in East Africa by 2012. We recently backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. (I called this our Prester John strategy, since the Grand Strategy of post-Crusades Europe was to form an alliance with Priest John, king of Christian Abyssinia, to open a second front in Christendom's struggle with the Musselmen.)
Meanwhile, the NYT Magazine article by Joshua Hammer, The Africa Front, reports on a Kenyan legislative candidate who is raising money from American Jews for his campaign by portraying his opponent, a local Muslim, as a potential jihadist.
I hope that a President Obama, with his intimate knowledge of the corruption and disingenuousness of Kenya, would be less inclined to get America so involved in Northeast African politics. I would hope he's aware that we are much more likely to be manipulated by local power brokers into lining their pockets than we are to succeed at smiting terrorists. He should speak up about the folly of our overly interventionist East Africa policy.