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

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.