Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a senior career American Foreign Service Officer and the most prominent Africanist in the U.S. Department of State, who has just returned from four years in Kenya as the United States envoy to that East African country, told an assemblage of U.S. government policy makers; international organization representatives; international relief, humanitarian, and development NGO activists; African diplomats; and media representatives that Kenya "is the most important country in East Africa...(and) has been our most stable and reliable partner in the Greater Horn of Africa."
Speaking in his private capacity, Carson, who is now the Senior Vice President of the National Defense University in Washington, DC, reviewed the recent elections and governmental transition, the challenges Kenya faces over the coming year and the U.S. response to Kenya and its new situation.
Carson characterized the December 27, 2002 elections in Kenya and the successful transfer of power as “a remarkable success” and called for the international community to “applaud Kenya for its recent accomplishments.” The elections, he said, “were a model for Africa…peaceful, fair and transparent and…carried out according to the country’s constitution.” Subsequently, Carson said, the Kibaki Government has earned widespread and deserved praise for its policies. In particular, Carson highlighted the selection of competent officials for the Cabinet and other senior posts, the attack on endemic corruption, the extension of free education to all primary school children in the country, and the elevation of the status of women through wide-ranging senior appointments.
Having outlined this promising start in the first six months of the Kibaki Government, Carson then listed six major challenges facing Kenya over the coming year. They are:
-The President’s health: After a serious pre-election car accident, Kibaki has been in the hospital for treatment twice. With the unexpected death of Vice President Michael Wamalwa, there has been further public scrutiny of the President’s health. Kenya needs a “strong, visible and effective President.”
-Constitutional reform: The government had pledged a new constitution within six months. That time frame has come and gone and the review slowed down dramatically. The Kibaki coalition is now “deeply divided over whether a new constitution needs to be rushed through” and Kibaki now resists the cutting of presidential powers. A “constitutional stalemate could precipitate a political crisis” next year.
-Financial and budgetary shortfalls: The economy has been relatively stagnant for over a decade, with GDP growth rate at 2% or less. There is a major current account deficit now which could balloon even further in the face of new spending demands for free primary education and medical services to needy families, absent any international budgetary support.
-Anti-Corruption agenda: While much is being done on corruption, with the appointment of a new “senior anti-corruption czar,” the removal of the corrupt chief justice, and the passage of two important pieces of legislation in this area, there is still “widespread and systematic corruption” in Kenya. Kenya needs to begin to prosecute, convict and jail those who have stolen public funds.
-Security: Investigations of the major terrorist incidents in Kenya in 1998 and 2002 have revealed that Al Qaeda has one or two cells in the country, the members of the cells are Kenyan, and they are a part of Al Qaeda’s global network. The cells are active and probably planning more attacks. Kenya has taken a strong stand on terrorism but it must continue to act aggressively against terrorists “and those who shield them.”
-Managing coalition cohesion: The current government is not a unified body, but rather a coalition of a range of political and regional views with at least 4 major political blocks and 10 lesser groupings. They came together to defeat KANU but six months later some of the personal rivalries and suspicions are resurfacing. A split of the coalition would “generate political instability, realignments in parliament, and perhaps early elections,” setting back the reform process and economic recovery. Kibaki must manage the coalition to keep its cohesiveness.
Carson then discussed five challenges facing the United States to maintain its strong ties with Kenya in order to keep the current bilateral confidence and friendship and “political and military ties that have helped advance US policy objectives in the region.” They are:
-Don’t take Kenya for granted: Kenya has a new democratic government, vibrant civil society, strong political opposition, and sophisticated media. It will show independence and the US must work hard to keep Kenya convinced of the efficacy of its pro-American policy leanings.
-Democracy Dividend: Kenya’s performance of the last six months deserves recognition through a “democracy dividend” of increased development assistance and support for the democratic process underway.
-Anti-Terrorism assistance: The US needs to follow through in a timely and appropriate manner the pledges of assistance it has made to Kenya to help fight international terrorism.
-Creative economic assistance: US must help Kenya “jump start” its economy to meet job creation and housing goals, amongst others. Not only should Kenya be a prime candidate for the Millennium Challenge account, but we should create a $50-70 million investment fund exclusively for Kenya as we have done elsewhere in the world and a US/Kenya Trade Council.
-Don’t let terrorism dominate bilateral agenda: The US must not let the counter terrorism effort be the centerpiece of Kenya/US relations which would distort and ultimately sour the relationship.
Ambassador Carson concluded with the opinion that, despite its multiple challenges, Kenya “has the ingredients to succeed.” With a strong education system, sixteen universities and one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, the largest “non-oil and non-mineral based economy” in sub-Saharan Africa, and a deeply rooted business and professional class, Kenya now also has one of the strongest democracies in Africa. “We in Washington…(must) play our part” to recognize and support Kenya.
The issue of HIV/AIDS was posed from the audience and Carson noted that he should have listed that as one of the challenges Kenya faced. He didn’t because he feels “HIV/AIDS is the greatest challenge facing all of Africa.” However, Kenya, though it was late in addressing the issue, compared to its neighbor Uganda, has focused on it now in a very positive way. The President has taken a strong public lead, following a similar commitment of his predecessor, to include allowing free TV and radio airtime for information campaigns, Kibaki personally doing commercials, and a State House summit on HIV/AIDS.
Asked to elaborate on corruption, Carson iterated the investigations currently underway including the Goldberg scandal, the Eurobank thefts, and the misuse of the National Security Fund. Indictments and prosecutions have yet to emerge, but the anti-corruption pledge is being actively pursued. On constitutional reform, Carson said his private opinion was that the Kenya constitution, largely drafted by respected US constitutional scholar and jurist Thurgood Marshall, did not need to be replaced, only amended on several points and rationalized in terms of its flexibility on presidential power. Carson characterized the Parliament as “alive and active”, having adopted the US committee system and committed to holding government accountable. While Parliament is effective and doing a good job, the professional Civil Service, once the pride of Kenya, is “degraded…weak, politicized, and ineffective.” It must be revitalized. Finally, when asked about ethnic tensions, Carson profiled the current cabinet and other positions of power as very diverse. The president, he felt, does not surround himself with cronies of like mind and background any more than any other candidate for the presidency would have or, for that matter, then other international leaders. Kenya, he said, “has crossed a real milestone on ethnicity” and it is not a factor in government.