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Kenyan Officials May Be Regretting the Obama Connection

Posted by Administrator on September 29, 2009

U.S. policy towards Africa has been fairly muted in the first nine months of the Obama Administration. Aside from Obama’s speech in Ghana and Hillary Clinton’s whirlwind tour of the continent, there has been little beyond rhetoric coming from Uncle Sam. As with many other policy areas, including domestic ones, government agencies such as the State Department and AFRICOM are still working to develop their tailor-made policies for the new administration.

Officials however, have certainly shot out of the gate in dealing with Kenya. Whether it is Obama’s personal link to the country or possibly that a clear policy framework has already been decided on, the U.S. has been much more assertive in its Kenya strategy. Just last week, a letter signed by the U.S. assistant secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to Kenya, was sent to fifteen politicians of the Kenyan government threatening to impose travel bans if the officials do not work to promote political reforms and seek justice for the January 2008 post-election violence. The call comes as Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo said he would notify the ICC that Kenya would not be administering tribunals to try suspects of Kenya’s post-election violence (a number of whom are government officials). President Mwai Kibaki has since sent a letter directly to President Obama expressing his displeasure at the U.S.’ strongly worded stance.

Compared to how the U.S. administration has dealt with less-than-friendly nations such as Iran, Venezuela and North Korea (with whom Obama has struck a more conciliatory tone) such a hard-nosed approach to Kenya seems odd. But in fact, the administration’s Kenya policy fits quite predictably into a greater foreign policy framework. It turns out that Obama only adheres to Kissinger’s Realpolitik when dealing with such aforementioned states that are in ideological opposition to the U.S. He uses the proverbial ‘stick’ when his legitimacy is high and a practical ‘carrot’ in situations where it is lacking (for example his June speech addressing the Islamic world at Cairo University). Unlike Bush, the more his words are respected the more comfortable he is with using them as a tool to push for action.

Although the American administration may be acting with good intention, such a policy could easily strain relations with an important regional U.S. ally. Kenya’s strategic value lies in its proximity to southern Somalia and the Indian Ocean shipping lanes while also serving as a hub for East African trade and a center for American intelligence operatives—qualities that only increase in importance as the situation in Somalia continues to deteriorate and as East Africa moves towards greater regional economic integration.

In addition, transitional “justice” may not be what Kenya needs work past its problems. In fact, a crusade for justice will only play into the hands of ‘victimized’ ethnic factions scrambling for reparations in the form of political power. The U.S. should look at South Africa and Rwanda to see that sometimes, forgiveness for past crimes and a focus on institutional legitimacy goes further in the quest to build a capable state. By focusing more on good governance and battling corruption than on subjective forms of justice, the administration has a better chance of stabilizing Kenya in the long term.

Even so, certain questions should be clarified before the U.S. goes any further with this strategy. Kenyan politicians will not concede to reform if they believe there is a chance that they will be punished in the end by an ICC tribunal. Specifically, how does the administration differentiate between blocking reform and political deliberation? And what are its benchmarks for reform? The importance placed on such policy details by the U.S. should not be relegated to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It will be worth following whether the Obama Administration’s tactic pushes Kenyan politicians to concede to U.S. demands (and if so, how these demands are defined) or if it will merely break Kenya’s Obama honeymoon. If this is part of a greater framework for how Obama will operate on the international stage, it will be an interesting lithmus test.

SOURCE: http://www.independent.co.ug

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