High Stakes for U.S. in Kenya

By Stephen Hayes

U.S. President Barack Obama is in East Africa, Kenya, then Ethiopia, making it his fourth trip to Africa during his Presidency. After this trip, he will be the most traveled U.S. President to Africa. During his presidency he has traveled to Ghana and Egypt as part of two separate trips and two years ago he laid out his general Africa policy in a visit that took him to South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal. He may make at least one more trip to Africa before his second term ends. His schedule in Kenya includes an address before the Global Entrepreneurs Summit in Nairobi and a meeting by invitation-only with select business and civil society leaders of Kenya. There will be a State Dinner on Saturday evening hosted by President Kenyatta. He will also have private discussions with President Kenyatta.

His public meetings in Kenya are intended to underline the need for entrepreneurship as a means to develop the middle class through jobs for the young and to encourage private sector development. He is likely to note that U.S. business itself needs to increase its investment in the region as part of his TradeAfrica and PowerAfrica initiatives. His decision to address civil society leadership is meant to be a clear message of support for the efforts and challenges of this aspect of Kenyan society. It has not always been easy for civil society and journalists in Africa and this meeting will be a message to governments, as much as to civil society itself, that individual freedom and opinion remains of very high importance to the United States of America. He will acknowledge the importance of civil society organizations to any free society and praise their efforts especially in face of terrorism propagated by others.

What will be less on the public agenda, but very high in private discussions, will be the security issues that threaten to destabilize Kenya and to discourage outside investment vital to the development of Kenya. The presence of the president of the United States in Kenya will be a message of support for Kenya that terrorism will not deter our belief in freedom and that we will not be intimidated, but in so doing, rest assured that security around President Obama will be some of the tightest of his Presidency. Al-Shabaab and other terrorists organizations would love nothing more than to strike a blow either at or during the president’s visit. 

Both Kenya and Ethiopia have been essential partners, and in many cases leaders, in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia and in the region.  The two countries also remain the best possible allies in ending the strife in South Sudan, a task almost as difficult as fighting Al-Shabaab. Private discussions will focus on how Kenya may be more effective in controlling Al-Shabbab in its border areas, noting the gruesome and horrendous killings of stone workers in Kenya twice along the Somalia-Kenya border, and the murders of non-Moslem students in Garissa University earlier in the year. These discussions will focus on what type of further support the U.S. can provide, as well as the need for economic development in these regions that can address the large unemployment and disaffection of the young upon which Al-Shabaab has capitalized on as recruiting grounds. In any joint press conference that will likely be held near the end of the trip, expect many of the questions from the press to focus on these issues. 

In Ethiopia, President Obama will become the first U.S. President to address the African Union. There may be some Heads of State in the audience and there will certainly be diplomatic representation from every nation in Africa, including Morocco, which while not a member of the African Union, does currently have observer status. That he will be the first American President to receive this honor is a particular point of pride.  Certainly, the President will meet with Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union and former foreign minister of South Africa. By most accounts, Dlamini-Zuma has taken firm management control of the African Union, no easy task with 54 nations all positioning for greater visibility in Africa.

He is also scheduled to visit a USAID project near or in Addis Ababa. Although the Ethiopian Government had proposed a meeting with businesses, this idea was apparently nixed, given time restraints. The decision to visit an AID project may be a means to underline his appointment of Gayle Smith as the new Director of USAID, although she must still be confirmed by a recalcitrant Congress. Smith is an old Ethiopia hand and is well known in some circles in Ethiopia. 

Perhaps President Obama’s most important discusssions will come with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Ethiopia especially has been critical in containing the regional crises around it such as South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.  Ethiopia is in a tough neighborhood, and its forces are vital to regional security. At the same time, the U.S. Government has been critical of Ethiopia’s governance record that includes a very heavy hand to journalists and civil society deemed critical of the Government. Complicating this is that the Prime Minister has only been such for a little more than a year. He is working to consolidate his power among the ruling committee, which is politically and ideologically split. Desalegn will need something from Obama to take back to his people and more importantly his ruling committee of nine that shows he is his own man.  The meeting will be a balancing act for both leaders.

The trip to this region is long overdue. These two countries are vital to not only African but American international security. The trip will go a long way to strengthening the U.S. relationship in the region.


Stephen Hayes is the president and CEO of The Corporate Council on Africa, the premier organization devoted to U.S.-Africa business relations (www.corporatecouncilonafrica.com). In his 15-year tenure as president, he has led CCA to become fully engaged in the most political and economic issues affecting commerce between the U.S. and Africa. He promotes CCA’s mandate “to increase and support U.S.-Africa economic engagement,” while creating an organization that recognizes a “one world” concept through ongoing international forums. For his work at CCA, Hayes was awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce its highest award in 2008, The Ron Brown Award for International Leadership.

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