White House talks to benefit Uhuru more than Trump: analysts

What you need to know:

  • The White House session with a key US ally in Africa also affords Mr Trump an opportunity to present himself as a globally-focused leader.
  • The US president can thus be expected to use the Kenyatta meeting as an occasion to tout his Africa policies.

  • Trump’s Africa policy focuses on security engagement and private-sector-led development.


President Uhuru Kenyatta's White House meeting on Monday will likely prove of greater value to Kenya than to his host, US-based Africa analysts are suggesting.

As the second sub-Saharan leader US President Donald Trump has invited to Washington, Mr Kenyatta will reap enhanced prestige in the East Africa region while garnering political benefits at home, says John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria.

"The meeting will send a signal to Kenyans that not only has President Kenyatta reconciled with Raila Odinga, but he's now also respected internationally," adds J Peter Pham, head of the Africa programme at Washington's Atlantic Council think-tank.


The clouds that shrouded Mr Kenyatta as a result of his 2010 indictment by the International Criminal Court and last year's chaotic, disputed presidential elections should be fully dispelled following his talks in the Oval Office, notes Judd Devermont, the top Africa specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Because of his tarnished image, Mr Kenyatta was never received in the Oval Office by President Obama, Mr Devermont points out.

International opprobrium is not a problem for President Trump, who has put aside any misgivings about Mr Kenyatta's human rights record in favour of Kenya's importance as a guarantor of US interests in East Africa. Kenya's vigorous economy, while not as significant to the US as is Nigeria's or South Africa's, is nonetheless another key reason why Mr Trump has invited Mr Kenyatta to Washington, Ambassador Campbell suggests.


The meeting is likewise a reflection of the close ties Kenya has had with the US since independence. And that relationship will be symbolically deepened by Kenya Airways' inaugural direct flight to the US in October, notes Mark Bellamy, a former US ambassador to Kenya. The two leaders may choose to highlight that event in their post-meeting remarks.

In terms of the actual agenda for the afternoon parlay, President Kenyatta can be expected to outline his Big Four programme and will likely ask for President Trump's assistance in implementing it, analysts say.

The US leader could prove receptive to such a request due to his demonstrated interest in profitmaking opportunities for American businesses in Africa, observes Mr Bellamy.

"I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich," Mr Trump told a gathering of African leaders in New York last year. "They are spending a lot of money," he added, emphasising Africa's "tremendous business potential”.


China's large-scale investments in Kenya may serve as an added incentive for Mr Trump to encourage US corporate involvement in Kenya. As a corollary on that topic, Mr Trump may well warn Mr Kenyatta of the potential dangers of Kenya's heavy indebtedness to China. And the Kenyan leader himself will likely be seeking to "balance" China's role by soliciting US investments in development projects, says Joshua Meservey, the Africa analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Mr Kenyatta also comes to the White House with an awareness of the Trump administration's stated interest in negotiating a bilateral free-trade agreement with one yet-to-be-named African country. "Kenya is certainly on the shortlist" of candidates for such a deal, Mr Pham says.


Kenya's economy is sizeable and dynamic enough to meet the criteria for a bilateral trade pact in keeping with the Trump team's vision for US-Africa commercial relations within a post-Agoa framework. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, an 18-year-old preferential trade arrangement, is set to expire in 2025. Security matters are sure to occupy a top spot on the Trump-Kenyatta agenda, analysts agree.

President Kenyatta will probably ask for increased US military assistance in combating Al-Shabaab both at home and in Somalia. And due to Mr Trump's clear willingness to fight "terrorism," he could assent to such an entreaty — partly, too, as a gesture of appreciation for Kenya's long and costly military intervention in Somalia.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was able to secure a major US arms deal in conjunction with his own White House meeting earlier this year. "There may be a parallel for that with the Kenyatta meeting," Mr Campbell speculates.


It's possible that the meeting will conclude with an announcement that Kenya is going forward with its long-contemplated purchase of up to a dozen weaponised crop duster aircraft from a US manufacturer. That deal, with a price tag as high as $418 million, became mired in controversy after a Republican member of the US Congress charged last year that Kenya would be paying an unnecessarily large sum for a type of aeroplane not well-suited to its military needs in Somalia.

Personal interaction is an important element in relationships between Heads of State, diplomats generally believe. And in that regard, the Kenyatta-Trump dynamic could prove positive, especially in the context of security concerns, Mr Pham of the Atlantic Council posits.

"President Trump of course wants to build his great wall on the southern US border while President Kenyatta is building a security barrier in Kenya's northeast," Mr Pham observes. "So there could be a commonality there."


The two leaders have previously spoken on telephone, Mr Pham adds, noting they will not be meeting as strangers.

Monday's get-together will also carry some significance for President Trump. While he will not gain as much political benefit as President Kenyatta is likely to enjoy, the US leader can use his second set of talks with a sub-Saharan Head of State to counter criticisms that he has shown little interest in — or respect for — Africa.

Perceptions of Mr Trump's disregard for — and ignorance of — Africa have been heightened by his reference last year to the non-existent country of "Nambia" and by his notorious description of African countries as "shit holes”.

If given the chance, US journalists can be expected to ask Mr Kenyatta to comment on that disparaging remark. Mr Kenyatta would surely offer a similarly diplomatic response, Mr Devermont suggests.


The White House session with a key US ally in Africa also affords Mr Trump an opportunity to present himself as a globally-focused leader.

And cultivating that image would serve to divert attention from his domestic problems at a time when he is politically weakened by scandals involving sex, corruption and election-rigging.

The US president can thus be expected to use the Kenyatta meeting as an occasion to tout his Africa policies. Mr Meservey, the Heritage Foundation scholar, notes that the Trump administration's Africa policy pillars of security engagement, private-sector-led development initiatives and efforts to promote clean governance are congruent with the anticipated topics for the US president's talks with Mr Kenyatta.


Human rights advocacy has not figured in Mr Trump's overall foreign policy, and will almost certainly not be a subject of discussion with Mr Kenyatta, says Otsieno Namwaya, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Nairobi.

"Since he took office, Trump has invited a parade of autocrats to the White House, and expressed admiration for leaders who rule with an iron fist, so may find some of Mr Kenyatta’s problematic policies to be attractive," Mr Namwaya commented in an e-mail message.

"Like the Trump administration, and with the al-Shabaab threat still real, the Kenyatta administration has prioritised security, business and trade over human rights," Mr Namwaya adds.


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