The Obama Visit to Kenya: Four Key Issues Deserving Special Attention

This weekend Kenya is hosting the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The chief guest at the summit is U.S. president Barack Obama. Mr. Obama is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with his host President Uhuru Kenyatta; and will also give two public speeches on the sidelines of the summit — one at Kenyatta University and another at the Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani. Here are the things I hope Obama and his team will focus on while in Kenya:

  • Infrastructure Development and FDI: Kenya is currently in the middle of an epic infrastructure investment drive (power generation and transmission, roads, railway lines, ports, and water systems). The most impactful thing the U.S. president can do for Kenyans is to facilitate a more robust involvement by the U.S. private sector in these projects – either through private investment or PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships). And perhaps the most natural place for U.S. companies to put in even more money is Kenya’s buzzing tech scene. IBM, Intel, Google, Microsoft, and GE have led the way. More need to follow.
  • A New Approach to Civil Society Support: The Kenyan government still has a lot to do in terms of governance reforms. But the way partners like the U.S. and the EU approach the challenge needs to change. The 2010 Constitution devolved and, by a large measure, professionalized government in Kenya. Unfortunately, the Kenyan Civil Society appears to not have caught up. The same can be said about political affairs officers in various embassies in Nairobi. The new institutional game is different and favors Think Tanks with deep research benches as opposed to multipurpose activists. Support for the Kenyan Civil Society therefore needs to catch up to this reality. Project cycles need to be elongated. Also, if I were a donor with a large pot of money I would focus a lot of energy in getting governance right in a few of Kenya’s 47 counties as an example to the rest. These subnational units have substantial financial and political resources that make them ideal testing grounds for public policies. They are also sources of future national politicians.
  • Taking Security Seriously: Kenya continues to be mired in the conflict in Somalia as part of the AMISOM mission. The involvement has exposed Kenya to terror attacks by al-Shabaab – the most bloody of which was the Garissa University College attack that left 148 people dead. The U.S. has been a key partner of AMISOM, providing equipment, funds, intelligence, and air support. Given its leverage, America could do more in making sure that Kenya’s involvement in Somalia does not lead to an erosion of KDF’s professionalism. Credible reports have linked KDF officers to the smuggling of charcoal and sugar, activities that line the coffers of al-Shabaab. There is also evidence that the Generals are the ones driving Kenya’s Somalia policy, instead of elected civilians. U.S. support should be predicated on civilian control, a healthy reverence of military professionalism, and an appreciation of the local and regional consequences of American actions in Somalia. America also needs to realize that Kenya is still a young democracy struggling to consolidate rule of law. Unlawful arrests, disappearances, and executions of suspected terrorists who are Kenyan nationals must stop. The fight against al-Shabaab must not be allowed to erode hard fought gains in the quest for rule of law.
  • A Constructive Political Engagement About Reforms: The U.S. can help Kenya clean up its public sector through reforms founded on political reality. For example, presently corruption appears to be worsening in the country. This is both a function of media exposure and dispersal of power. More people in government now have access to state coffers – mainly throught the tender process (as a result tenderpreneurs abound). Corruption is also political. The president is ultimately a politician who wants to be reelected. the same applies to MPs and Governors and Senators. Many of them engage in corruption as a means of campaign finance (Harambees are expensive). Tackling corruption therefore requires more than mere moralizing about its ills on society. All involved must be willing to address the hard and uncomfortable truths about the political economy of the vice. This would mean, for instance, coming up with a way to allow politicians access to campaign money in a legal and transparent manner. It may also entail some form of amnesty for past offenders (you can’t jail the entire public service). Corruption in Kenya is not a simple law enforcement problem. The same logic applies to other reform initiatives. They are likely to succeed if grounded on political realities, instead of some notion of a moral failing among Kenyan politicians.

Here are some pieces I liked about Obama’s trip to Africa:

– Charles Kenny on why Obama is selling Africa short

– Todd Moss on Obama’s missed opportunity in Africa 

– The challenges facing power Africa in Nigeria

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