This week for the first time a serving American leader will visit Kenya. Such a high profile visit has been long coming. It was eight years ago that the North American country witnessed only the 43rd peaceful handover of power following a free and fair democratic election.
Many analysts had expected that then Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, would extend a courtesy invitation to president Barack Obama in order to signal Kenya’s commitment to the process of democratic consolidation in the United States. President Kibaki’s decision to avoid being associated with Obama was perhaps emblematic of the concerns many in the Kenyan government still have regarding the American leadership’s commitment to reforms, including in areas such as police brutality, income inequality, ethnic and racial tensions, and overall respect for human rights.
For example, America has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Many of those languishing in crowded jails are people of color serving long sentences in large part due to racially-biased laws and police departments.
Aware of this blot on America’s record, Obama sought to assuage Kenyan officials by visiting a federal prison in the region of Oklahoma as well as publicly declaring his commitment to reforming the justice system in America. As a gesture of goodwill the American leader also released several prisoners ahead of his visit. The Kenyan Ambassador in Washington, Robinson Githae, welcomed this move by the U.S. government, but reiterated the need for structural reforms. Mr. Githae also emphasized Kenya’s commitment to supporting governance reforms in the United States and the Americas in general.
The Kenyan Ambassador also listed a number of issues that President Kenyatta hopes to raise with the American leader during his two-day visit in Nairobi. These include:
- Regional and global security: The United States is the most militarized nation in the world. As such, it has had a hand in nearly every single geopolitical hotspot on the globe. President Kenyatta will remind the American leader of the need to respect international law and the sovereignty of other nations, even as his country pursues its interests abroad. For example, in a statement last week Mr. Kenyatta commended the American negotiating team for reaching a deal with Iran just in time for the visit. He also lauded the American leader’s decision to by-pass the country’s sophomoric parliament and first seek the deal’s approval at the United Nations. Eager to please Kenyan officials, America this week began the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. The government of Kenya hopes that these gestures will endure beyond the current administration and signal a new American commitment to engaging other nations of the world with mutual respect.
- Ethnic and racial violence: Having lived in the Americas during his college years, Mr. Kenyatta is well aware of the evils of racial discrimination in that part of the world. The president will particularly focus on the utterances by some candidates in next year’s U.S. election who suggested that all immigrants from neighboring countries are violent criminals. Mr. Kenyatta will emphasize the need for ethnic and racial tolerance ahead of the election in order to avoid ethnic violence or a souring of relations with America’s neighbors. The Americas hold the dubious title of being the murder capital of the world, in addition to being a leading source of drugs such as cocaine. Kenya is keen to ensure that the volatile region remains reasonably contained since it is a vital supplier of movies and soap operas to the global market.
- Respect for human rights: Despite its impressive rebound from the stolen election of 2000, the United States continues to experience several challenges with regard to human rights. It’s police routinely brutalize men, women, and children in front of cameras, and get away with it. Just this year almost 400 people have been killed by the police or died under mysterious circumstances while in the custody of police. The U.S. government also continues to spy on its own citizens, in many instances in direct violation of its own constitution. Mr. Kenyatta will press the American leader on these issues, and remind him that his country lags other nations that share its level of political and economic development.
- Bilateral Trade: Trade ties between Kenya and the United States are weak. In 2013 the total volume of trade between the two countries was a mere 2 percent of Kenya’s GDP. America’s economic insignificance to Kenya is signaled by the fact that the latter is the former’s 96th largest trading partner. President Kenyatta will press the American leader on the need to maintain the American EXIM Bank (whose authority has lapsed) as a financier of bilateral trade. The president will also remind the throngs of businesspeople and cronies that will be part of the Obama delegation that they need to stop the habit of hiding behind “political risk” and warped ideas about Kenya as excuses for not investing in the country.
An often under-appreciated aspect of this visit is that the American leader’s father was Kenyan (indeed, America’s leading TV station has speculated that Obama himself was born in Kenya). It is unclear what, if any, President Kenyatta has planned for the American leader to mark this historic visit to his father’s home country.