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Kenya - US Relations: The Diplomatic ‘Cold Front’

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President Obama has returned from his Africa tour without setting foot in Kenya, a fact that has been the source of much consternation in the land of his father. That a 'son of the soil' failed to visit his motherland in his first term as President of the U.S. was bad enough. Now with the tail end of his presidency in sight, a second trip to Africa without Air Force One touching down in Kenya was, to many, almost a slap in the face. From a geo-political point of view, many here held the expectation that the 'leader of the free world' would recognize his Kenyan roots and that finally a 'homecoming' might be held in his father's Kogelo village.

Is it such a big deal that President Obama did not visit Kenya? After all, he has been here numerous times before, although never as U.S. President. As it turns out, sitting U.S. presidents tend to give Kenya a wide berth for reasons that remain unclear, given that Kenya has been a close U.S. ally over the years. The repeated response from the Kenyan Government has been that the entire debate around this last trip was 'much ado about nothing,' inconsequential. That in itself was telling: the fact that various officials repeated this mantra over a number of days.

Kenyan Government's Response to Obama Skipping a Stop in the Country

Deputy President William Ruto categorically stated that Kenyan leaders were not spending sleepless nights over the Obama trip to Africa. Indeed, he was of the view that President Obama was free to travel to any country he wished, and that Kenya, on her part, had many other friendly nations around the world with whom she could cooperate. The Deputy President further iterated that his Jubilee coalition would be in a position to fulfill its election promises to Kenyans with or without support from the United States. President Kenyatta, on the other hand, appears to have maintained a studious silence on the trip.

Another official, Government Spokesman Muthui Kariuki, appeared in a CNN interview in which he expressed a similar view on President Obama's failure to stop in Kenya while on his Africa tour. He posited that since President Obama was only able to visit three African countries on this trip, and not all 53, to not visit Kenya was not a 'snub' at all. To whit, he said the Government was "not worried" that a stop on Kenyan soil was not on the cards.

However, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and a select group of other Chief Justices did meet with President Obama, albeit in Senegal, to discuss the role of courts in promoting democracy. Given the prevailing diplomatic situation, such a meeting was always bound to court controversy, with one Kenyan parliamentarian requesting a statement from the Majority Leader in the National Assembly.

The Role of the ICC Indictments on U.S.-Kenyan Diplomatic Relations

That Kenya-U.S. diplomatic relations are experiencing a 'cold front' is no secret. This, in large part, is due to the charges facing both President and Deputy President at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Recently at the U.S. Embassy July 4th Independence Day celebrations, with the exception of the Speaker of the Senate, senior representation from the newly-appointed Kenyan Government was conspicuously absent. The unprecedented situation of a sitting Head of State and his Deputy facing ICC charges has precipitated not only a diplomatic freeze, but also a lack of clarity in terms of how, or perhaps whether, to engage each other.

On his own part, President Obama said while speaking to a group of young Africans in an interactive session that the "…timing was not right" for him to visit Kenya, given the cases facing the leadership of the country. In fact, during his tour of the African continent, he spoke of his Kenyan heritage and the fact that he was not visiting the country on a number of occasions. That he felt it necessary to do this on more than one occasion speaks to the importance of the issue.

Disappointment on the Ground?

On the part of the Kenyan people, I get the sense that there was a genuine sense of disappointment at not playing host to 'the President with Kenyan roots.' The opportunity to roll out the red carpet may have been cathartic for some in this country, still reeling from a divisive electoral process, equally polarizing along ethnic lines. In truth, it would be disingenuous to suggest that all Kenyans would relish the prospect of an Obama visit, his stock dipping slightly in the hearts and minds of the populace following this second 'snub.' Faced with the real possibility of a visit, however, I feel this is something many would embrace and rally around.

At the end of the day, both sides will, in the fullness of time, come to terms with the new realities facing us and their effects not only on diplomatic relations, but also on longstanding economic, as well as military, cooperation. Relations between the two countries run deep. According to a 2012 BBC global opinion poll, 79% of Kenyans view the U.S. positively, making us some of the most pro-American Africans in Africa. At the same time, a recent survey conducted in 40 U.S. States found that Kenya's reputation among Americans is still high, despite significant reporting in the U.S. on ICC related matters.

What does this tell us?

Seemingly, the Kenyan and American people continue to view each other positively. The 'cold front' currently being experienced is a diplomatic issue between two governments, and conventional wisdom, coupled with strategic interests, points to an eventual thawing of diplomatic relations. In the meantime, we can expect more of the awkward and uncomfortable spurned invitation here, and perhaps a cold shoulder there.

Ultimately, these are two countries that have a shared commitment to regional stability, economic prosperity, and social development. On his recently-concluded trip to the continent, President Obama carried with him a 500-strong contingent of American business leaders and a message of increased opportunities on the continent, with a focus on youth empowerment. It is these mutually beneficial opportunities that the Kenyan people yearn for, whether President Obama is able to travel here as President or not.

By Tom Mboya, Governance Specialist and Deputy CEO, Inuka Kenya




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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, 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 US-Africa relations.    Read more