Visit likely to stir criticism, celebration in equal measure

What you need to know:

  • Some analysts say security concerns may make it hard to attract investment.


The public portion of President Obama’s forthcoming visit will likely involve celebrations of his heritage and the historic ties between the United States and Kenya, specialists in Washington say.

They also expect Mr Obama to praise Kenya’s economic achievements and to urge US businesses to establish or expand stakes in the country.

But fears regarding security may make it hard for the president to persuade investors to risk buying into Kenya, some analysts say.

Whether Mr Obama focuses publicly on the threat posed by Somali-based Al-Shabaab terrorists, who have in the recent past carried out attacks in Kenya, the spectre of terrorism will affect the tenor of the trip to his father’s homeland.

Upbeat talk of trade and investment, rather than anxieties over Al-Shabaab, are likely to be at the top of Mr Obama’s public agenda, says Ms Aubrey Hruby, author of The Next Africa, a new book highlighting Nairobi’s emergence as a centre of technological innovation.

She says a large part of the president’s visit will be taken up by the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where he is sure to point to the promise of a rising generation of African innovators.

A positive atmosphere will probably prevail throughout Mr Obama’s long-awaited return to Kenya as President of the United States.

The visit is seen in both Nairobi and Washington as “an opportunity to reset a sometimes troubled relationship,” says Mr Mark Bellamy, a former US ambassador to Kenya.


Mr David Throup, a Kenya expert at a Washington think tank, adds: “Kenyans will be as eager as the Americans to mend relations”.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has grown less confident of its “Look East” policy, given the recent short-circuiting of China’s equity markets and the resurgence of the US economy, Mr Throup observes.

In contrast to the good feelings expressed in public, Mr Obama’s private talks will focus on worries regarding Kenya’s security strategy and on what US officials view as Kenyan government attempts to stifle dissent, Mr Throup and other analysts say.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest addressed those topics in remarks to reporters last week.

“We continue to be mindful of the need for security forces in Kenya to ensure that even as they engage in counter-terrorism efforts, they respect the basic human rights of the population,” Mr Earnest said. “And this is an admonition that we have levelled on more than one occasion against the Kenya Government.”

The White House spokesman’s comments were made the same day that Al-Shabaab killed 14 Kenyans at a quarry compound in Mandera County. Mr Earnest said that while the US closely monitors terrorist threats, officials do not intend “at this point” to adjust Mr Obama’s Kenya schedule in response to security concerns.

Debate is raging within the Obama administration over “how confrontational and critical” he should be in raising security issues in his closed-door discussions with President Kenyatta, Mr Throup says.

The senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggests that Mr Obama will try to persuade Mr Kenyatta to view problems in Kenya’s northeastern and Coast regions as stemming not solely from terrorist infiltration but also from “economic deprivation and social grievance.”

Mr Throup predicts that Mr Obama’s key message on security will be: “It’s counterproductive for the Kenyan government to see it in purely military terms.”

But how forcefully will that message be delivered? Mr Throup wonders.

“President Kenyatta can be an extremely charming person,” he says, “and it may be that President Obama will succumb to that.”

A friendly set of talks in private may also lead Mr Obama to strike a softer tone — at least in public — when expressing US concerns about human rights, Mr Throup adds.

But Mr Obama should be outspoken on such issues in public as well as in private, argues Ms Monde Muyangwa, head of the Africa programme at Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.

“The back-door approach has cons as well as pros,” she says. “Ordinary African citizens will be looking to the US to be forceful in its statements on human rights.”

The State Department has been critical of the Kenyan government’s moves to limit dissent on the part of civil society organisations. And Mr Obama should continue to express those concerns publicly, says Mr Joshua Meservey, an Africa policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.


“There’s a worrying trend of democratic space shrinking in Kenya,” Mr Meservey comments. “It’s reminiscent of the approach Ethiopia has taken in using laws to virtually eradicate opposition.”

Mr Throup likewise believes President Obama will speak out against “the clampdown on civil society.” Pointing to the de-registering of two Muslim human rights groups — Haki Africa and Muslims For Human Rights — Mr Throup suggests “the government should be embracing rather than persecuting those organisations”.

In calling for respect for human rights and freedoms, Mr Obama is likely to affirm the rights of gay people and to call for tolerance. But Ambassador Bellamy expects the president to be somewhat circumspect in this regard to avoid igniting a controversy that could sour the visit.

“He’s not going to tell Kenyans to adopt laws similar to those in the US,” the former envoy says.

The analysts forecasting the themes of Mr Obama’s visit do not anticipate the International Criminal Court to be a featured topic in either public or private. “Both sides would rather not talk about it,” Ambassador Bellamy remarks.

But Mr Throup anticipates that Deputy President William Ruto, on trial at the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity, will be “carefully isolated” from Mr Obama. The US prefers there be “little or no contact” between the two, Mr Throup says.

That stance reflects the perceived awkwardness of associating the world’s leading champion of human rights with a Kenya politician accused of helping orchestrate large-scale human rights violations.

Kenyan officials are likely to press their US peers to revoke or at least soften the long-standing travel warnings that have contributed to the melt-down of Kenya’s tourism industry.

But the Obama team is unlikely to respond favourably to these promptings, the analysts suggest. The US side will argue “there is nothing the President can do about it,” predicts Mr Meservey of the Heritage Foundation.

Existing laws and potential litigation impel the State Department to alert US citizens to potential threats while travelling outside the country, Mr Meservey says.

“Just imagine the fallout if a US citizen were killed in Kenya after the US lifted a travel warning,” he says.

Mr Meservey expects insecurity to increase in Kenya during Mr Obama’s visit. The President himself is unlikely to be vulnerable due to the protection around him, but Al-Shabaab will likely take advantage of Mr Obama’s presence to attack a soft target, the Africa policy analyst says. “They’ll see the advantages of exposing weaknesses,” he says, adding: “I hope I’m wrong about this.”

None of the analysts interviewed by Sunday Nation foresee major policy announcements being made during Mr Obama’s trip. “There will likely make some initiatives, but no game-changers,” Mr Meservey says.

Instead of unveiling a major new programme, Mr Obama could call attention to Africa-focused projects he has already launched.

These include Power Africa, a public-private effort; Trade Africa, an initiative to facilitate commerce among members of the East African Community; and the renewed African Growth Opportunity Act, a US preferential trade programme.