By: GEORGE KEGORO
There is growing sentiment that President Barack Obama was too soft on the Jubilee administration during his visit to Kenya last week, and that he missed an opportunity to express himself about key governance concerns.
In the week before the Obama visit, two former US ambassadors to Kenya, Johnnie Carson and Mark Bellamy, wrote an opinion article in The New York Times, calling on the US president to “tread carefully, but not silently, when addressing fundamental issues of democratic governance” during his Kenyan trip, observing that “Kenyans will want to hear his views — an appeal he must answer.”
The issues on which the diplomats wanted Obama to address included weak leadership and poor coordination that is undermining responses to the threat of terrorism, and the “farfetched” rhetoric that the US is undermining or even trying to overthrow President Uhuru Kenyatta “by financing non-governmental organisations.”
While his address at Kasarani contained tough lines, these were not particularly aimed at the Jubilee government.
Further, Obama declared that “the election two years ago was competitive and largely peaceful” thus giving a much-craved recognition to what in some quarters is a contested electoral victory.
Although he never once explicitly praised Jubilee, he heaped massive praise on the people of Kenya, without making a distinction between them and their government, thus giving Jubilee the opportunity to appropriate the praise for itself.
In the build-up to the Obama visit, a group of local civil society actors discussed with the US Ambassador Robert Godec what to expect during the visit and made a request that a meeting between the US president and local human rights defenders was desirable as it would send the right signal to the Jubilee government regarding concerns about the closing of civic space.
While, during his visit, the US president held a session with civil society groups, the nature of the meeting was not conducive for the kind of interaction that the actors had wished for.
To begin with, while they had hoped for a private meeting, where a candid exchange of views could take place, Obama chose a public meeting, whose proceedings were televised.
Secondly, the large number of people invited to the meeting militated against a meaningful exchange of views.
Thirdly, the disparate nature of those invited to the meeting, from schoolgirls to conservationists, from national-level human rights defenders to grassroots organisers, meant that it was going to be a struggle to find common ground.
COMMON GROUND ESTABLISHED
In the end, common ground was established by US officials themselves, who had pre-selected a number of people who were to kick off the conversation on three themes they said the president was interested in.
These were wildlife conservation, girl-child education and countering violent extremism.
By the time the president responded to issues raised by those selected to speak, the one hour allocated for the meeting was over.
A number of national-level human rights defenders, unhappy with what they saw as a highly choreographed meeting, stayed away from the meeting, which meant that the presidential meeting took place in the absence of some of the people that face the greatest risks as a result of the closing of civic space.
Despite a recent ban on the two organisations, Muslims for Human Rights and Haki Africa, accused of involvement in corruption, their representatives were invited to and attended the meeting.
This was widely seen as a censure by the US government of their classification as terrorist organisations.
While countering violent extremism was one of the topics Obama tackled, it was odd that neither of these two was given the opportunity to speak for themselves and that, instead, other people had been pre-selected to raise concerns about the banning of the two organisations.
Several human rights defenders felt that, rather than facilitate their president to have meaningful dialogue with Kenyan civil society, Obama’s handlers were pre-occupied with ensuring that people the Kenya government regards as controversial had no chance to speak to the US president.
Selecting safe subjects for discussion and also safe speakers to raise issues on those topics, was seen as key to ensuring that meeting remained within the scope of what was tolerable by them.
It is remarkable that questions about accountability for the post-election violence did not feature during the Obama visit.
While the case against President Kenyatta has since been terminated, the one against his deputy, William Ruto, lingers on.
Before the visit, it was unclear if Obama would meet with Ruto in view of the charges he faces, and the prior policy of the diplomatic community that only “essential contact” would be maintained with the Kenyan leadership as long as they had charges before the ICC.
In the end, Ruto and members of his family, all visibly nervous, met with the president and, although he showed little warmth to the Deputy President, the very meeting with Obama serves his cause.
VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE
A second aspect of the accountability process, the outstanding questions about reparations for the victims of the violence, never came up during the Obama visit either.
While it may have been an awkward subject for Obama to raise questions about how accountability before the ICC has been managed, it was expected that a recognition by the US president, of the victims would go a long way towards underscoring their plight and enhancing the possibility of reparations.
Whereas President Obama’s approach with the Jubilee government is seen as having been too soft, there has been criticism that he gave insufficient time to the Opposition and also publicly divulged the nature of their discussions, which greatly embarrassed them.
Critics of the Obama visit now point out that while his coming to Kenya has significantly validated the Jubilee administration, it has left the opposition weakened and in considerable disarray, as a result of what has been interpreted as a public rebuke from the US president.
Questions have been raised as to why Obama chose such a soft approach towards Jubilee and what its long-term implications might be for the internal governance of the country.
An explanation offered by sections of the media is that Obama feared that open criticism of Jubilee would further drive the country towards the East where it famously announced it was looking when it took power in 2013.
However, this does not seem to be a genuine fear because, as seen by the awe that Obama struck in his host, Uhuru Kenyatta, Jubilee craves the kind of validation that only the US can provide.
A more likely explanation for Obama’s soft approach is linked to the reason for his visit.
As he explained himself, the US president visited Kenya to fulfil a promise that he would do so before the end of his term in office.
Obama had to keep his promise, first because of the special connection he has with the country as the land of his ancestors, and, secondly, because he must have felt that a “homecoming” during his presidency was an inexorable duty.
Since he had to come to Kenya, a plausible reason had to be found.
However, concerns in his country about the security risk of such a visit and also about Jubilee’s growing reputation as a repressive regime, were two arguments against the trip.
Security was beefed up to address the first concern and the US administration played down the concerns about Kenya’s human rights record as a means of addressing the second issue.
Staging the Global Enterprise Summit in Kenya became the excuse rather than the reason for the visit, whose true reason was the promise he had made to visit.
Given the extremely tenuous foundation on which his visit was built, Obama was forced to be nice to Jubilee, knowing that the risk of a Jubilee backlash if he was more critical, combined with concerns in his country about the visit, would be two big risks that he could not face at the same time.
The long term possibilities of Obama’s lenient approach will be interesting.
First, in the short time that it has been in power, Jubilee had erected the West as the bogeyman working with local NGOs to frustrate all the good things the regime is trying to do.
Obama’s visit now shatters the accusation and Jubilee may have to find someone else to blame, if the need arises.
Secondly, Obama’s visit has considerably increased his already very high public appeal in Kenya, and by not playing all his cards on this visit, Obama has significantly increased his leverage over Kenyan politics, in a manner that will guarantee him a role in the country’s domestic affairs, even after he leaves office.