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Obama jets into Kenya

US President Barack Obama spent 48 hours in Kenya last weekend, in a visit that caused great excitement and comment. Kenyans feel a special affinity for the American leader, whose late father was Kenyan. He arrived on Friday, July 24, and was welcomed by the president and by some members of his Kenyan family, with whom he had a fairly informal dinner at a Nairobi hotel later. The atmosphere was one of celebration, with walls being painted to welcome Mr Obama. There are reports that two babies were named Air Force One in honour of the visit.

Most of the diplomacy happened on Saturday, July 25, the day of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi and the day of a formal bilateral meeting with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. Most of his remarks focused on economics and governance issues, in particular corruption, a problem that he addressed more than once. He offered “advice and technical assistance” to “increase transparency and accountability, and to strengthen institutions that fight corruption.” Good governance, he said, would “help unleash even greater growth and investment and prosperity for the Kenyan people.

Before the summit meeting, Mr Obama visited the site of the 1998 Embassy Bombing in Nairobi, the worst terror attack in Kenya’s history. As was expected, part of his visit concerned terrorism as Kenya confronts a deadly menace from Al-Shabaab and its Kenyan sympathisers. He announced that he had signed an “action plan” to help Kenya strengthen its judiciary, police and border security. He mentioned the region’s two major crises – the civil war in South Sudan and the electoral crisis in Burundi – on which the American and Kenyan positions are aligned.

Mr Obama did not include the topic of gay rights in his prepared remarks – a number of Kenyan politicians, including Deputy President William Ruto, had made angry noises about the possibility of that before his visit – but he did address the topic in response to a question from a journalist. He said: “I believe that […] the State should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation” and said that when governments start “treating people differently […] because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.” Mr Kenyatta did not directly challenge his counterpart but pointed out that “this issue is not really an issue that is on the foremost minds of Kenyans” and that the country had enough challenges of its own without looking at “new ones.

From a political point of view Mr Obama’s cordial partnership with Mr Kenyatta may be the single most important aspect of his visit. Despite his personal ties to Kenya, Mr Obama had declined to go to Kenya until now because of the Kenyan leader’s indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Before the general election in 2013 it was fairly clear that the US would have preferred to see Raila Odinga win the presidency. Now that the ICC has dropped its case against Mr Kenyatta, Mr Obama not only offered profuse statements of admiration for him, but took a bit of a swipe at Mr Odinga (without naming him), saying that “everybody wants the United States to be involved when they are not in power and when they are in power, they want the United States to mind their own business.

Mr Obama’s visit took up a lot of column space in Kenyan and African news outlets over the past few days, but there is nothing earth-shaking about it. There are nonetheless some interesting elements to it. The first is the clear emphasis on trade and investment, and the US’s pressure on its trade partners to improve governance and infrastructure, and to remove impediments to entrepreneurship like corruption and excessive red tape. Much is often made of the competition between the US and China for African markets, and that competition exists, but US companies offering sophisticated services have a clear strategic advantage over their Chinese competitors (while US companies cannot compete on cheap manufactured goods). US involvement in Kenya – and elsewhere – will increasingly focus on promoting the growth of an upper-middle class and medium-size companies that will turn to America for services and expensive engineered goods. Power for Africa and the Entrepreneurship Summit are part of that.

 Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)

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