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Kenya: Analysts - President Obama's Visit Strong On Symbolism, Short On Substance

Africa Program Global Fellow Steve McDonald is quoted in this article, originally published on AllAfrica.

By Kevin J. Kelley

Analysts in Washington are giving President Obama's visit to East Africa generally positive reviews, although none are suggesting it will produce major policy changes for either the US, Kenya or Ethiopia.

Most commentators see the symbolic aspects of the trip as both primary and powerful.

Witney Schneidman, a former African affairs official at the State Department, says, for example, that Mr Obama's reference to himself as the first Kenyan-American president "created a bond that redefines the relationship between the two countries".

US presidential visits to other countries are almost always big on pomp and circumstance, with little policy content, observes Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"That was true of this visit," he says. Mr Downie adds, however, that Mr Obama "spoke with his usual eloquence" and appeared to impress the audience at the African Union.

The US president's ancestral connection with Africa enabled him to speak more forcefully and perhaps more persuasively on human rights and corruption than would have been possible for a US head of state not of African descent, Mr Downie adds.

The success of the trip should be gauged by how Africans viewed it, says William Bellamy, a former US ambassador to Kenya. "And they seem to have viewed it positively," he notes.

Steve McDonald, an Africa scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, adds, "The feedback from every Kenyan I know has been positive."

The strongest impact of the visit was probably on civil society activists rather than on state authorities, Ambassador Bellamy suggests.

"I don't expect it will lead to a sudden change of behaviour on the part of Kenyan government officials," he says, "but it will serve to reinforce the efforts of Kenyans who are demanding accountability and transparency."

Mr McDonald agrees, suggesting that the president's endorsement of civil society organisations "gives them cover and emboldens them, not just in Kenya but in other African countries as well".

Bronwyn Bruton, deputy head of Africa unit at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, offers a much more critical perspective on Mr Obama's visit.

She says the president's focus on women's rights and his defence of gay rights "played well with his liberal base in the US," but did not pose any meaningful challenges to his hosts.


The inclusion of the gay rights element on Mr Obama's human rights agenda gave African leaders an opening to signal to their constituents that the entire US message on these issues is "out of bounds," she says.

Espousing the cause of women's rights does not generate much controversy in Africa, Ms Bruton adds.

It is generally accepted, at least on a rhetorical level, that women should be treated equally, she notes, suggesting, "Women do not represent the linchpin of repression in Africa."

In Kenya and Ethiopia, it is government mistreatment of the Muslim population that stands at the core of human rights concerns, Ms Bruton says.

It was "disappointing" that Mr Obama chose to deliver a speech at Kasarani Stadium that did not include explicit condemnation of Operation Usalama Watch, she remarks.

Hundreds of Somali Kenyans were rounded up and detained in the stadium in April 2014 following terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa.

"The mistreatment of Muslims in Kenya and Ethiopia goes right to the heart of al-Shabaab's recruitment," Ms Bruton says.


Overall, she finds, the president's visit served as "a reinforcement of the status quo" in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Mr McDonald, on the other hand, comments that "Obama talked about all the right things - corruption, human rights and governance, especially the issue of third terms for African presidents."

Ambassador Bellamy takes the same view, saying of Mr Obama, "He hit all his targets".

The visit may also be seen as potentially beneficial to Kenya's economy, with its highlighting of the country's entrepreneurs and its implied message that Kenya may be a safe destination for tourists, Mr Downie suggests.

He says the president's stay "did give Kenya 48 hours of positive global media attention".

And it may encourage the international media to look beyond "Shabaab, corruption and safaris" in their future coverage of Kenya, he speculates.

The first-ever visits to Kenya and Ethiopia by an incumbent US head of state also signaled a new commitment to high-level engagement in Africa, former State Department official Schneidman observes.

"It showed the US is going to engage with countries we may have significant disagreements with, and not just the safe-bet countries, like Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana" where Mr Obama had earlier traveled, Mr Schneidman points out.


But the key question, Mr Downie adds, is whether this degree of engagement with Africa will continue.

It may well -- and perhaps while Mr Obama is still in the White House, Mr Schneidman says.

"I wouldn't assume that this was his last visit to Africa as president. Remember that Bill Clinton went to Nigeria in the August just before the 2000 election," Mr Schneidman notes, adding that President Bush the elder traveled to Somalia a few weeks after he had lost the 1992 election.

The Obama visit offered no indications of major changes in US policy toward Kenya, Ethiopia or Africa in general, Mr McDonald says.

Describing himself as "cynical about the Obama administration's handling of Africa," Mr McDonald says nothing that occurred during the president's time in Kenya and Ethiopia caused him to revise that assessment.

The speech to the African Union was belated, in Mr McDonald's estimation.

"He should have done that in his first term," the Woodrow Wilson Centre scholar opines.

Mr Downie takes a similar view, saying, "It seems to me the US is still playing at the margins in Africa."

Despite all the talk about economic progress in Africa, "US businesses largely remain on the sidelines there," he says.

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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.–Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our blog Africa Up Close, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more