Barack Obama on Uhuru Kenyatta

This is from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic:

Obama’s relationship with Kenyatta is complicated. A careful reading of Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, suggests that he holds Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, the liberator of Kenya, indirectly responsible for his own father’s premature demise. (The elder Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, froze out Obama’s father, a Luo, from government service after the elder Obama complained too insistently about corruption.) And the younger Kenyatta’s association with human-rights violators has placed a question mark over his head. But Obama also believes that Kenyatta is at least intermittently committed to battling tribalism and corruption, and aides tell me that Obama will devote a part of his post-presidential years to the issue of African governance.

Instead of focusing on “African Governance,” I’d suggest President Obama spends part of his post-presidential years as Africa’s economic ambassador to the United States and beyond.

“Good governance” and “good institutions” are great. But the notion that African states have to reach zero corruption and zero rigged elections before any factories can be built is a misguided fantasy. Institutions and positive economic performance co-evolve. Good politics is not always good economics; and good economics is not always good politics. Africa, despite everyone’s apparent belief in the region’s exceptionalism, is not unique in this regard.

Chemistry Meets Civics, U.S. Edition

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 12.24.13 PM

H/T Reid Wilson of Morning Consult 

Also, what characteristics does President Obama want for a theoretical element named after him?

I would want it to be stable ….. I would want it to be a catalyst but one that didn’t get too hot or too cold… Hopefully it would be one that was useful to humanity… [and] wasn’t just some shiny object.

President Barack Obama majored in Political Science.


Race and political ads in America

obama.pngThere is strong evidence linking skin complexion to negative stereotypes and adverse real-world outcomes. We extend these findings to political ad campaigns, in which skin complexion can be easily manipulated in ways that are difficult to detect. Devising a method to measure how dark a candidate appears in an image, this paper examines how complexion varied with ad content during the 2008 presidential election campaign (study 1). Findings show that darker images were more frequent in negative ads—especially those linking Obama to crime—which aired more frequently as Election Day approached. We then conduct an experiment to document how these darker images can activate stereotypes, and show that a subtle darkness manipulation is sufficient to activate the most negative stereotypes about Blacks—even when the candidate is a famous counter-stereotypical exemplar—Barack Obama (study 2). Further evidence of an evaluative penalty for darker skin comes from an observational study measuring affective responses to depictions of Obama with varying skin complexion, presented via the Affect Misattribution Procedure in the 2008 American National Election Study (study 3). This study demonstrates that darker images are used in a way that complements ad content, and shows that doing so can negatively affect how individuals evaluate candidates and think about politics.

The paper is titled “Bias in the Flesh: Skin Complexion and Stereotype Consistency in Political Campaigns,” by Messing, Jabon, and Plaut.

The average adult American (regardless of party ID, ideology, race, or region) grew up in an era in which news media and popular portrayal of Americans of African origin (and for that matter, Africans) was far worse than it is today. So findings like these, and their real political and economic consequences, are gonna be with us for a while.

H/T Dina Pomeranz

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

Presidential Salaries in Africa

Paul Biya of Cameroon earns $610,000 per annum, 229 times the earnings of the average Cameroonian.* Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.31.57 PM

Think about it for a second: Paul Biya earns $210,000 more than Barack Obama.

Notice that these figures do not include all manner of allowances.

Source: Daily Nation

*Note that the interns at the Daily Nation mixed up Mauritania and Mauritius. The CNN bug is contagious.

Key Issues That President Kenyatta Will Raise During Obama’s Visit

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.

obamaAware 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.

Two Important Lessons Americans Should Learn From the Senate Torture Report

As Americans digest the contents of the just released Senate Report on CIA’s use of torture, here are two important lessons that they ought to internalize.

  1. The release of the report neither absolves America of the deeds highlighted therein, nor does it mean that such gross violations of the rights of non-Americans have ended. As Mother Jones reported back in 2012, President Obama may have ended officially sanctioned torture, but as it continued to wage the global war on terror America merely “outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere” through rendition programs. In addition, CFR has calculated that over the course of 500 drone strikes under both the Bush and Obama administrations 41 men were targeted, but 1147 people were killed. Dangerous terrorists should be taken out, by all means. But at some point we must begin to ask questions about what ought to constitute an upper limit of tolerable collateral damage. Especially in relation to the lives of innocent non-combatants.
  2. By outsourcing illegal practices to governments in the developing world America is contributing to the weakening of institutions of accountability in those countries and the radicalization of potential jihadists. Six months ago I argued for caution in the ongoing militarization of US-Africa relations. My worry is that many American security arrangements with African governments are designed to bypass normal democratic channels (like direct military to military cooperation) and risk creating unaccountable militaries and governments. In Kenya, for instance, it is increasingly unclear whether the military or the elected civilian administration is in charge of national security policy (especially with regard to the mission in Somalia). Nairobi has also recently been on the spotlight accused of engaging in extra-judicial killings of suspected terrorists with foreign assistance. In addition, many governments in the region that cooperate with the US have enacted sweeping anti-terror laws, many designed to also silence domestic political dissent. If it is not yet abundantly clear, it is high time American policymakers realized that unaccountable and highly securitized governments play into the hands of jihadist recruiters.

The release of the report is certainly commendable. It is a shining example of the virtues of separation of powers, something that America, more than any other nation in history, has perfected. But it is not an end in and of itself. It ought to be a first step in acknowledging that human rights do not end at the water’s edge, and putting pressure on elected officials to devise national security and foreign relations policies that respect this fact. Despite what some Americans may say, respecting the rights of non-Americans and their desire for accountable political and military institutions will not weaken America. On the contrary it will make it stronger by bolstering its soft power, and safer.

Reporting the US government shutdown…

WASHINGTON, United States—The typical signs of state failure aren’t evident on the streets of this sleepy capital city. Beret-wearing colonels have not yet taken to the airwaves to declare martial law. Money-changers are not yet buying stacks of useless greenbacks on the street.

But the pleasant autumn weather disguises a government teetering on the brink. Because, at midnight Monday night, the government of this intensely proud and nationalistic people will shut down, a drastic sign of political dysfunction in this moribund republic. 

The capital’s rival clans find themselves at an impasse, unable to agree on a measure that will allow the American state to carry out its most basic functions. While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards.

……..As this correspondent’s cab driver put it, while driving down the poorly maintained roads that lead from the airport, “Do these guys have any idea what they’re doing to the country?”

That is Joshua Keating in an entertaining piece over at Slate on how the ongoing government shutdown in the United States might have been reported from an American perspective had it happened in another country.