Group pushes US focus on Kenya reforms

Monday November 5 2012

PHOTO | PPS President Mwai Kibaki and the United States Secretary of State, Mrs Hillary Clinton, chair bilateral talks between Kenya and United States at State House Nairobi on August 4, 2012.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki chair bilateral talks between the two countries at State House, Nairobi on August 4, 2012. PHOTO|FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP


Washington DC

A group of US policy specialists on Africa is working behind the scenes to sharpen the Obama administration’s focus on Kenya’s reform process and on the country’s preparations for the next elections.

Calling itself the Kenya Working Group, this collection of about a dozen leading figures at Washington think tanks and activist organisations has been meeting regularly for the past four months.

Some of the private conversations have involved senior US government officials who, the group’s founders say, have encouraged the effort to coordinate and intensify engagement with Kenya.

The co-chairs of the Kenya Working Group, Prof Joel Barkan, a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch, spoke recently with the Nation about the aims of the initiative.

“We thought there was a lack of informed US engagement with Kenya,” Prof Barkan said in explaining why the group was established early this past summer.

“The US seemed absent in the period following the referendum on the new Constitution.”

High-level inattention to Kenya in Washington was due in part, working group members suggest, to the much-criticised performance of former Ambassador Scott Gration.

He served as US envoy to Kenya for a 13-month period until being forced to resign in late June. (READ: Why Obama ally quit as Kenya ambassador)

Shortly later, the Kenya Working Group issued a statement urging President Obama to “immediately nominate a senior individual with deep conflict-prevention expertise to replace Ambassador Scott Gration.”

Group members now express satisfaction with Mr Obama’s choice of Robert Godec as the new ambassador. (READ: Anti-terror chief new US envoy)

Mr Godec, a career Foreign Service officer who worked previously in the Nairobi embassy, is expected to win confirmation by the US Senate following the November 6 election.

Prof Barkan and Ms Margon both say the Kenya Working Group’s efforts are proving successful.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Kenya in August had not been included on her Africa itinerary until after the working group’s formation, Prof Barkan noted.

The group operates without funding of its own, and does not engage in lobbying, its co-chairs say. They emphasise what they describe as its nonpartisan approach, noting that the group is not aligned with any political faction in either Kenya or the US.

Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to Washington, has been invited to a few of the working group’s sessions and has encouraged its activities, the co-chairs say.

The working group is currently operating with a sense of urgency due to what Ms Margon characterises as “worrying” developments in Kenya.

She and Prof Barkan point to the upsurge in pre-election violence and concerns about the effectiveness of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.