State secretary tour launches a ‘reset’ of US-Kenya relations

What you need to know:

  • The instability throughout the sub-Sahara region resulting from Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, as well as in Somalia, will be a key topic of conversations between Secretary Kerry and President Kenyatta, US officials say. “But it won’t be the only topic,” Mr Pham observes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Kenya on Sunday and Monday can be seen as initiating a “reset” of the two countries’ previously strained relationship, analysts in Washington suggest.

In his security-focused talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Kerry is expected to reaffirm the Obama administration’s intention of repairing the traditionally close links between the US and Kenya.

Full restoration of the partnership will likely be achieved when President Obama makes a scheduled visit to Kenya in July — a historic event that Secretary Kerry will be discussing in his official meetings in Nairobi.

“There’s now re-engagement with Kenya at the highest level,” said Mr Peter Pham, director of Africa programmes at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington. “It’s a reset of the relationship.”
Ms Jendayi Frazer, head of the State Department’s Africa bureau during President George W Bush’s second term, agreed that Mr Obama’s planned visit is “absolutely critical” to consolidating US-Kenya relations. “These are two countries with many significant shared interests,” she noted.

Ms Frazer, who had previously criticised the Obama administration’s dealings with Kenya, added that the US is now “on the right track” not only in regard to Kenya but toward Africa in general.
US-Kenya ties had begun to fray as a result of Washington’s tacit but obvious opposition to Mr Kenyatta’s presidential candidacy in 2013. That stance reflected US unease over Mr Kenyatta’s alleged involvement in the violence that had followed the 2007 election.

Relations deteriorated further when President Obama bypassed Kenya, his father’s homeland, while visiting neighbouring Tanzania and two other African countries in 2013.
That omission was due mainly to the White House’s desire to establish distance from a leader charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity.

“With the passage of time and with the ICC case having run its course, the sound fundamentals of the relationship have been reasserted,” commented Mr Mark Bellamy, a former US ambassador to Kenya.

The United States has a strong interest in helping Kenya counter what Mr Bellamy describes as “the escalating threat” posed by Al-Shabaab. The US supplies Kenya with considerable amounts of aid intended to bolster security forces’ effectiveness. Washington also shares with Nairobi some of the intelligence it gathers regarding terrorist threats in East Africa.

In Secretary Kerry’s two-day talks with Kenyan officials, “the Obama administration will reaffirm US’ willingness to help in any possible way with security,” Mr Bellamy said.
A KEY TOPIC

The instability throughout the sub-Sahara region resulting from Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, as well as in Somalia, will be a key topic of conversations between Secretary Kerry and President Kenyatta, US officials say. “But it won’t be the only topic,” Mr Pham observes.

Economic matters will also be on the Kerry agenda. “The Obama legacy regarding Africa will not depend as much on the security aspect as on business aspects,” Mr Pham says. Kenya is seen as pivotal in that regard because it is the leading member of the East African Community. “Certainly, the EAC is leaps and bounds ahead of any sub-region in Africa in terms of what has been accomplished in economic integration,” Mr Pham says.

President Obama highlighted economic development opportunities during the US-Africa summit he hosted in Washington last August. And the US Head of State is likely to maintain that focus when he travels to Kenya in July, in part to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit being co-hosted by Kenya.

But US investment in Kenya will continue to fall far short of its potential as long as American businesses remain worried about the safety of their employees and the security of their assets.
The Secretary of State is likely to push for reforms that Kenyan officials acknowledge are needed in the nation’s security sector.

“They know what needs to be done but they should still be pushed,” says Mr Steve McDonald, head of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. “But I’m not sure how much that will succeed,” Mr McDonald adds. “General corruption within the police force is a big part of the problem.”

Ambassador Bellamy agrees “it isn’t clear foreign assistance would be able to fix that.”

Mr Pham, however, points to an issue of “institutional capacity on the US side.” The US military is closely engaged with the Kenyan army, but apart from FBI investigations of terror attacks, there is no equivalent co-operation in the dimension of policing, he notes. “The United States doesn’t have a national police force,” Mr Pham points out. “There’s no counterpart to Kenya’s force.”

In their letter to Kerry, US and Kenyan civil-society groups point specifically to “impunity for serious abuses by security forces, including extrajudicial executions, proposed legislation that would worsen the increasingly difficult environment for the media and civil society, and increasing pressure on Kenya’s Somali refugee population.”

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