What Kenya wants from Obama’s man

Vice President Joe Biden (left) smiles as US President Barack Obama speaks in Hyattsville, Maryland, on June 4.

What you need to know:

  • Nairobi will listen to lectures on graft, but is looking for US help on Somalia

US Vice-President Joe Biden flies into Nairobi on Monday amid unprecedented security and quiet despair in the corridors of power over what is seen as failure by the Obama administration “to be helpful” in finding a solution in Somalia.

Mr Biden will be in the country for two days as part of a three-nation visit, which includes attending the opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup in South Africa on Friday.

He is the third top-ranking US official to visit Kenya since the election of Mr Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan.

Special message

Mr Biden is expected to deliver a special message from Mr Obama on reforms and the constitution review.

Mr Obama used an interview with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to say some supportive things about Kenya but also to put across what he believed should be fixed for Kenya to realise its potential: corruption, tribalism, and human freedoms.

But top Office of the President officials, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, appeared exasperated by what they termed Washington’s “lack of political appetite” to help deal with an issue they see as equally dangerous to Kenya’s stability and future: Somalia.

The officials said they would like to see the Obama administration take “Somalia as a threat to regional and international peace” and to use it’s leverage in the Security Council to get the United Nations to be more engaged in fixing the lawless country.

Without a government for nearly 20 years, Somalia is overrun by clan and Islamist militias, some of them allied to al Qaeda, and have been used to launch attacks against US interests in the region.


On Sunday, the US Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigations were deployed and armoured limousines flown in for Mr Biden’s use.

The US Vice-President is expected to meet President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, National Assembly Speaker Kenneth Marende, and members of the Parliamentary Caucus on Reforms together with the chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on reforms.

On Sunday, a member of the Parliamentary Caucus on Reforms, Mr Olago Aluoch, said his group was scheduled to meet Mr Biden on Tuesday and the constitution was top on the agenda of the meeting.

“The most likely message that Mr Biden is bearing from President Obama is just to reiterate the issues of reforms and constitution review and how they are important to Kenyans,” said Prof Amukowa Anangwe, a political scientist.

During the interview in Washington with KBC, President Obama spoke of his wish to see a more prosperous Kenya. He urged Kenyans to “seize the moment” offered by the referendum to put the post-election violence behind them.

The US President sent the strongest indication yet that he wanted to see Kenya’s constitution review process come to a successful conclusion and announced plans to visit the country before his term ends.

But he clarified that the US was not pushing for the Yes vote at the referendum, slated for August 4.

President Obama said the decision to vote Yes or No at the referendum was up to Kenyans themselves.

Other top-ranking US officials who have visited Kenya include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. Mr Obama snubbed Kenya during an African tour, visiting Egypt and Ghana instead.

Bush era

During his visit in 2008, Mr Carson said the Obama administration would adhere to the same policies that were pursued during the Bush era.

Mr Carson, a former US ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, said Washington’s Africa policy had traditionally reflected consensus among Republicans and Democrats and Mr Obama wanted to continue that bipartisan approach.

During the visit, Mr Carson said the US Government feared for the stability of Kenya’s coalition and asked President Kibaki and Mr Odinga to move to implement the National Accord.

And during Mrs Clinton’s visit last year, the US government repeated the message and also called for the total overhaul of the criminal justice system and the removal of four key public officials in what they viewed as the first crucial step to reform the institutions they head.

Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee chairman Boni Khalwale, who attended one of the closed-door meetings with Mrs Clinton, said she was concerned about lack of reforms to help end impunity and promised to name, shame, and ban violence and corruption suspects from visiting the US.

Mrs Clinton, in her speeches and interviews published by the State Department, said a local tribunal was preferable but that The Hague option was inevitable if Kenyans did not move fast.

US ambassador Michael Ranneberger has on several occasions warned that the US Government would take tough action to pressure Kenya on the reform agenda.

Mr Ranneberger was summoned by Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula for talks over letters that the American Government had sent to 15 Kenyans.

On the Somalia issue, Nairobi would like Washington to add Mogadishu to its list of priorities in the region and to stop paying lip service to the risk that the “reservoir of terrorism” that Somalia has become presents.

Officials here now see al-Shabaab, the most powerful Islamic Somali militant group, as an immediate security threat, not because of its capacity on the battlefront, but because of it’s influence on moderate Muslim populations throughout the Eastern coast of Africa.

Officials are watching with puzzled anxiety the efforts of world powers, the European Union, the US, the United Kingdom and others, ineffectually try to deal with piracy, which is slowly squeezing regional economies.

Some 150 warships from navies across the world are patrolling the seas off Somalia. However, piracy has increased despite their presence.

World powers are not dealing with the problem and are content to try and attack the symptoms, Nairobi feels.

“Once there is an effective government in Somalia, the problem of piracy is solved,” an official told the Daily Nation.

In addition to piracy and terrorism, Kenya is dealing with other consequences of state failure in Somalia. Arms pouring across the border, more than a million legal and illegal immigrants, and rising social tensions, a natural consequence of rapid migration.

“The US and the UK hold the key in Somalia,” the official told the Nation.

Asked what kind of US intervention Nairobi would like to see, the official said only the UN system has the capacity to rebuild war-ravaged country. And the UN will not move without prompting from influential members of the Security Council.

“Somalia is more strategic than Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Darfur,” the official said, referring to the countries where international intervention has been strong.


Nairobi would like the African Union force in Somalia expanded into a full-fledged UN peace keeping operation, providing cover for the reconstruction of the country.

Although officials were adamant that there would be no need for US or Kenyan boots on Somali soil, they also lamented a lack of US enthusiasm for proposals to stabilise the Somali regions bordering Kenya.

Some self-governing regions of Somalia, such as Puntland and Somaliland, are stable and relatively secure and Nairobi would have liked international support in encouraging the sprouting of stable, self-governing regions along its border to act as a buffer zone.

The US is reportedly wary of such an approach, believing it could have “unintended consequences”, meaning that it is worried that it could provoke terrorist attacks against its interests in the region by groups such as al-Shabaab.

But some in Nairobi are hoping that Mr Biden, a foreign policy expert, will be curious about Somalia and possibly lend his support in finding a solution for it.