Why Kenya matters to the west

Saturday October 10 2009

The United States’ Assistant Secretary of State in charge of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, at a press conference. He has described the relationship between Kenya and the US as ‘strong’. Photo/FILE

The United States’ Assistant Secretary of State in charge of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, at a press conference. He has described the relationship between Kenya and the US as ‘strong’. Photo/FILE 

By MUGUMO MUNENE in Nairobi and KEVIN KELLEY in New York

Chief mediator Kofi Annan remarked wryly at the end of his visit to Nairobi last week that he didn’t need a job.

“I am retired. I could put up my feet, but this is extremely important for Kenyans and Africa,” he told an interviewer.

But just why does the international community and the West in particular have such interest in Kenya that they would tap Mr Annan and pull out all stops to ensure the country is pulled back from the brink?

International analysts say Kenya stands at the top of the list in the East African region and the Horn of Africa as a favourite tourist destination, a hub for trade and a peacemaking and humanitarian epicentre, serving flashpoints like war-torn Somalia and struggling Southern Sudan.

It is said when Kenya sneezes, East Africa catches a cold.

This was clearly demonstrated during the post-election violence when Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi were hard hit by shortages of petroleum and other essential imports because transport through Kenya had ground to a halt.

But the West has an even greater interest.

Kenya has facilitated regional diplomatic efforts like the peace process between north and south Sudan and attempts to reconcile Somalia’s warring factions.

The US embassy in Kenya is the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, and US aid to the country, according to the Associated Press, totals about $1 billion (Sh80 billion) a year of roughly $5.6 billion (Sh640 billion) to the entire continent.

Indispensable partner

It is “America’s indispensable partner,” writes Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College.

Whereas few Americans know much detail about Africa, Kenya is considered an anchor state by diplomats just like Nigeria to the west, South Africa to the south and Egypt to the north.

Egypt’s strategic importance, though, has more to do with the Middle East than it does Africa.

“(Kenya) is a relatively open society with a history of multiparty politics and an economy that serves as a regional hub. Due to its proximity to crisis-stricken countries such as Somalia and Sudan, it also houses the headquarters of significant humanitarian operations. Twenty per cent of Kenya’s foreign exchange comes from UN agencies and non-governmental organisations,” Stephen Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential Washington based think tank, wrote recently.

As a hub for humanitarian assistance, Kenya, considered a haven of peace until last year’s violence, serves flashpoints that would sink further into trouble if the country were to dissolve into anarchy.

The conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, northern Uganda and the DRC would be accelerated by a failed Kenya, giving terrorists in Somalia a larger field from which to operate and handing the rest of the world a huge bill, perhaps in the billions of dollars, to deal with the resulting humanitarian crisis.

UN agencies

Additionally, Kenya hosts UN-Habitat, Unep and other UN agencies.

Headquarters of other UN specialized agencies are in New York, Vienna, Rome and Geneva.

Countries like Britain, China, Canada, Belgium, Russia, India, Israel, the European Union (EU), Iran, Brazil, Pakistan and all the major powers have robust diplomatic missions in Nairobi, as do numerous African countries, to watch over their strategic interests, be they military, economic or commercial.

From the autocratic rule of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in Uganda, the decades-long war in southern Sudan, the collapse of Somalia into anarchy, to terrorists who hunt Americans, the global scheme of things seems to have conspired to increasingly push Kenya towards the centre of American and Western strategic interests, according to an article by Joel Barkan in Implementing US Human Rights Policy.

“This combination of factors led US policy makers to view Kenya as one of the 'anchor states of Africa’. Kenya became a platform for a wide range of US activities in eastern Africa and the Horn,” writes Prof Barkan, a US expert on Kenyan politics.

Unknown to many Kenyans, when President Moi came to power in 1978, he entered into an agreement with Washington that permitted the US Air Force to land military aircraft at Jomo Kenyatta and Moi airports on 24-hour notice.

The US Navy was likewise accorded the use of the port of Mombasa as a rest and recreation facility for its Indian Ocean fleet.

In return, Kenya received economic support like the development of the port and continues to receive military aid to date.

In calibrating its relationship with Kenya, the Obama administration appears to be balancing US security interests with a commitment to governance reforms in Africa.

But these two considerations can be contradictory, with mixed signals sometimes being sent from Washington to Nairobi.

And that inconsistency leads Prof Makau Mutua, a Kenyan analyst long resident in the United States, to describe current US policy toward Kenya as “muddled.”

On the one hand, the US continues to view Kenya as its foremost strategic partner in eastern Africa and as a country of economic and diplomatic consequence.

Those factors – and most specifically Kenya’s role vis-a-vis Somalia – militate against moves that might cause Kenya to become uncooperative in its dealings with the US.

At the same time, the Obama team seems to have concluded that US strategic interests in Kenya can be safeguarded only if the grand coalition is pushed hard to ensure that the violence that followed the 2007 election will not recur in 2012.

“If there is a repeat, then the US’s worst nightmares will come true,” Mutua said. “Kenya will go to hell, and its strategic importance will be gone entirely. The US has no choice but to press for reforms. That’s a completely self-interested position for it to take.”

But as recently as two months ago, Obama’s top Africa official was presenting an almost unreservedly positive and reassuring view of Kenya.

Briefing reporters on the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Kenya in August, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson offered a litany of reasons why “the relationship is strong.”

“Our relationship with Kenya has been broad and deep and enormously useful for the United States,” Carson said. “We’ve enjoyed good military-to-military ties,” he added, noting that the US has relied on access to Kenyan airfields and the Port of Mombasa for carrying out relief operations in Somalia, Rwanda and southern Sudan. Carson also cited Kenya’s contributions to brokering the North-South peace agreement in Sudan.

There is also a powerful emotional component to the United States’ relationship with Kenya, notes Barkan.

He traces it to the “airlift” that brought nearly 1,000 Kenyan students to study in the United States 50 years ago.

Stronger link

And President Barack Obama’s election last year forged an even stronger link between the two countries.

But the mayhem unleashed early in 2008 led the US to reassess that relationship, Prof Barkan and other analysts say.

By failing to reach out beyond its Kikuyu base, the Kibaki government stoked a crisis that, from the US perspective, resulted in the gains of the previous 10 years being “squandered,” Barkan says.

He suggests the Obama administration is now “impatient for the old guard to make way for a younger generation of smart Kenyan professionals”.

That assessment appears to underlie the increasingly firm US insistence on reforms along with a purge of Kenyan officials judged to be corrupt and/or complicit in ethnic violence.

“We are going to be relentless in renewing that message and in backing it up with our actions,” a State Department official recently told the Sunday Nation. “It may be possible that people doubt our commitment, but it is firm.”

While the Obama administration still regards US strategic interests as paramount, Washington may now view Kenya more as a liability than an asset in securing those interests, suggests J. Peter Pham, director of the Project on US-Africa Relations at the New York-based National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

American business leaders are turning their attention to a “Plan B” for eastern Africa, Pham adds.

He says some private discussions at the recent US-Africa Business Summit in Washington focused on Dar es Salaam as a possible alternative to Mombasa as the main depot for shipping in East Africa.