Obama’s Triumphant Return To Kenya As President – Analysis


US foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa is transactional; corruption hampers fight against Al-Shabaab.

By John Githongo*

We Kenyans generally aren’t rational about President Barack Obama. To most citizens he is the much loved and admired Kenyan son who made good. Indeed, while his visit to Kenya last week was engineered around the US government’s annual promotional Global Entrepreneurship Summit, or GES, this was largely overlooked in local reporting. Kenyans genuinely reveled in the visit itself, swept off their feet by Obama’s lyrical orations and capacity to mesmerize an audience. We were left brimming with pride and inspiration. Newspapers carried details about his vehicle nicknamed the Beast; the location of Air Force One; the names of those receiving a hug; and profiles of young Kenyan men who offered dozens of head of cattle and proposed to Obama’s eldest daughter, Malia.

During the visit more than 30 new-borns nationwide were named “Obama,” and others were named Michelle, Sasha or Malia. A few were christened “Airforce One.” The Republicans in the United States searching for a Kenyan birth certificate for “Barrack Hussein Obama” probably would find one though its bearer won’t be of voting age.

Obama visited Kenya in 2006 as a US senator from Illinois, a hit back then, but a superstar as president. His message was consistent with the one he delivered in 2006. He spoke eloquently about the need for Kenya to up its game in anti-corruption, protect democratic gains, ensure youth opportunity and safeguard the rights of women and other minorities. He took time to meet with the opposition and civil society and even managed a media interview. Lost in the delirium of celebration of Obama, Kenyans forgot that the summit is an event held in countries where the United States is seeking closer economic and other ties. For Kenyans, perhaps understandably, the narrative represented Obama’s much-awaited grand homecoming as president.

In reality, Kenya has been the most steadfast political, military and diplomatic US ally on the eastern side of Africa for more than 50 years. Obama clearly meant to reinforce this. Partly as a result, the Kenyatta team also saw the trip as a massive endorsement conferring much needed legitimacy to a regime that has been weighed down by the International Criminal Court, rolling back democratic gains, with hostility to media and civil society, a myriad of corruption allegations and incompetence in management of public finances and security challenges. During the summit’s run up, Kenyans spoke little of who else was coming or the summit’s agenda. In the public imagination Obama came to Kenya and, by the way, a Global Entrepreneurship Summit happened.

As president of the United States, Obama understandably pushes US interests. In general, US foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa has always been transactional. The bottom line is that the value of Africa for the United States is essentially how to mitigate global terrorism and other issues like AIDS and Ebola that could harm US national security.

Over the past decade Kenya’s foreign policy has shifted emphatically eastward. Economically the Chinese dragon has over the last three years in particular found unprecedented comfort, succor and profit in Kenya under the Jubilee regime. It is an open secret among the chattering classes that businesspeople from the West seeking Kenyan work permits are pushed to the back of the line and Chinese competitors waltz through. The US and other western and traditionally frontline partners have scrambled to respond.

In terms of messaging, Obama was on point regarding the issues that will determine the character of Kenya’s future and he emphasized three challenges: empowering women, encouraging youth entrepreneurship and discouraging corruption. All resonate deeply with Kenyans. He was clear that the answers won’t come from outside the country but from Kenyans themselves. Over the past three years corruption has deepened and spread in Kenya to levels last seen in the 1990s.

President Obama acknowledged Kenya’s contribution to the contingent of African Union, or AMISOM, troops currently propping up the government in Somalia – a strategic priority for the United States.

It is also an issue that has prompted some dissonance among Kenyan policymakers and civil society. In truth, the 2011 entry of Kenyan troops into Somalia was a dubiously justified invasion that has emerged thus far as the greatest strategic blunder in the history of the Kenyan military. The blowback has been intense, catching Kenyans by surprise. The Westgate Mall terrorist attack of September 2013 by Al Shabaab stands out partly because of the soft target: more than 60 were left dead and at least 175 wounded, many middle-class Kenyans and foreigners.

Since then Al Shabaab has proved resilient, despite regular predictions of its imminent demise with its leaders killed, many by US drones. The insurgency has spilled over into Kenya shutting down a significant chunk of the coastal tourism industry. Tourism represents 12 percent of the economy.

Heavy-handed ethnic profiling by Kenyan authorities has served to further confuse citizens and alienate the Muslim community, about 10 percent of the population, while increasing the rate of radicalization within Kenya. Without a strategy, no one seems to have an idea what success should be for Somalia, and this has deepened Kenyan domestic opposition to the endeavor. Indeed, the political opposition has called for a withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia, and in April a poll showed that 88 percent of Kenyans regarded Al Shabaab as a threat with half suggesting that Kenyan troops should be withdrawn from the neighbor to the northeast.

Ironically, corruption, one of the issues President Obama emphasized most frequently in his speeches is partly responsible for the hollowing out of security agencies meant to interdict Al Shabaab. Some analysts argue that countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, which also have troops in Somalia have partly mitigated the blowback because their security machinery, despite some weaknesses, isn’t as dysfunctional as Kenya’s. Media inquiries, for example, demonstrate the extent to which incompetence and corruption facilitated the attack on Garissa University in May this year that left at least 147 students murdered.

Progressives may have been partly assuaged by Obama’s comments before the Africa Union. But many may have a bitter taste, expecting a more robust defense of civil society and media in Kenya’s shrinking democratic space.

Still, Obama’s first trip to Kenya as US president leaves little besides the fondest of memories. It also recalibrated relations with the Kenyatta regime, which at times have been testy. As noted earlier, Kenya has long been America’s best friend in Eastern Africa. The jury is still very much out on the controversial presence of Kenyan troops in the territory of their neighbor Somalia.

*John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. He can be reached at [email protected].

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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