As President Uhuru Kenyatta visits the White House this weekend, his agenda must be unassumingly firm because — let’s face it — with the Trump presidency, this won’t be an ordinary meeting and the traditional give-and-take diplomatic rule book may not apply.
It’s telling enough that President Donald Trump has only hosted one African leader — President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria — with the agenda largely being security and terrorism in the African country’s restive north and Sahel region.
It is, therefore, in many ways remarkable that he chose Kenya for his second one-on-one. Perhaps Trump’s primary agenda remains security and global terrorism, where Kenya is an undoubted regional ally.
I am, however, interested in the opposite — in terms of what must be in President Kenyatta’s agenda, considering that this is a rare opportunity to cover some ground with Trump and speak for Africa. This is particularly important because it’s not unusual for Trump to steal the limelight from important bilateral meetings by simply tweeting on unrelated controversial domestic issue or just picking Twitter fights with virtual opponents.
With such an unpredictable host, President Kenyatta must focus on getting specific commitments during their one-on-one instead of waiting for the press conference.
For a start, there is no point pretending that US-Kenya relations are at their all-time best. Trump has been repeatedly accused of racial and misogynistic tendencies that have, unintendedly, negatively profiled legitimate Kenyan and generally African immigrants and refugees in the United States.
Although Trump’s policies haven’t expressly targeted Kenyan immigrants — unlike South Americans (building border wall) and Muslims (blanket visa bans) — their overall effect of flaming up racial tensions affect Kenyans in America.
Trump’s commitment to cooperate with African governments to solve the root causes of large-scale migration — civil wars, bad governance and natural disasters — is necessary. As an anecdote, President Kenyatta should remind his host that Africa and the US have historically benefitted from movement of people and talent between them.
Secondly, President Kenyatta must prioritise substantive trade facilitation between Kenyan and US businesses. Although African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) is, thankfully, not coming up for renewal during Mr Trump’s presidency, he has demonstrated readiness to pick up trade wars with even the most economically vulnerable countries in Africa.
Just last month, the US suspended Rwanda’s duty-free status under Agoa on export of clothing into its market in apparent retaliation over the East African country’s reasonable decision to increase tariffs on used clothing and footwear from America. This is a violation of established international trade norms on preferential treatment to least industrialised nations to nurture their manufacturing.
Therefore, President Kenyatta ought to remind Trump that a competitive manufacturing base in Africa is eventually good for the US.
As a follow-up, he should propose an economic summit between Kenyan and American businesses in Nairobi to thrash out specific trade impediments between the two countries. For example, a double taxation treaty ought to be prioritised.
President Kenyatta should leverage on this diplomatic opportunity to temper any possibility of trade wars between Kenya and the US whilst escalating his recent anti-corruption initiative. He should focus on getting Trump’s support — including curbing money laundering, tax evasion, drug dealing, contraband and counterfeits.
On security, besides ongoing commitments, the President should brief Trump on efforts to stabilise South Sudan, Kenya’s important economic partner. Specifically, he should target his backing for an all-inclusive peace process that addresses ethnic sensitivities.
A good discussion ought to also bring out contentious issues. And so, President Kenyatta should brief Trump of his universal health coverage plan for Kenyans, much as Trump is rolling-back on ‘Obamacare’.
Finally, President Kenyatta should use the opportunity to formally invite Mr Trump for a reciprocal visit to Kenya next year. I’ve innumerably encountered PhD holders with a warped view of Africa traceable to their limited exposure to the continent. Trump is no exception, going by his denigrating remarks.
Importantly, US presidents traditionally visit Africa at least once in their first term. Such a visit will irreversibly solidify bilateral relations.
Dr Komolo, who practises as Dr Komolo & Partners Advocates, teaches law and international relations at Kenyatta University. [email protected].
Mutuma Mathiu’s column will resume next week.