Dear Mr. President:
Recently, the distinguished Harvard professor, Robert Rotberg, made the argument that your planned visit to Kenya in July is a “dumb” idea.
I couldn’t disagree more, and here is why:
One of Professor Rotberg’s central points is that your visit will exacerbate ethnic tensions in the country, as your father was a Luo, and Luos largely backed President Kenyatta’s opponents in the 2012 elections.
This is a misreading of Kenyan politics. While there are ethnic rivalries in Kenya, as in many African countries, the country is increasingly defined by its multi-ethnic private sector. In fact, in the 2013 elections, the private sector undertook an aggressive and comprehensive peace-building campaign that contributed significantly to a fair and free outcome. Given that you are going to Kenya to participate in the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the first time it will be held in sub-Saharan Africa, your visit will be an important boost to Kenya’s private sector and its contributions to the country’s development.
Professor Rotberg is also critical of the fact that you will be hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegations of crimes related to the 2007 elections. While the ICC indictment is a serious matter, you already hosted Kenya’s leader, along with 50 other African heads of state at the White House last August during the Africa Leaders Summit. Reciprocating the visit does not break new diplomatic ground. More importantly, your inclusive approach to summit participation was an important turning point for U.S.-African relations. We need to engage virtually all African governments on issues where we both agree and disagree—and specifically engage on contentious ones such as human rights, press freedoms, and transparency. You should not pull back from this approach.
Rotberg also argues that, since Kenya is “wildly corrupt,” your visit there will only undermine the United States’ efforts to promote the rule of law worldwide. True, 36 of the continent’s 54 countries, including Kenya, are ranked in the bottom half of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2014. Thus, by this reasoning, the U.S. engagement on the continent would be quite limited indeed. Moreover, it also follows that your two visits to Myanmar—which ranks lower than Kenya on TI’s index—should have been avoided.
There is no question that corruption is a significant problem in Africa, especially in undermining inclusive economic growth and discouraging U.S. investors. However, exporting American business practices to the continent contributes to combating the scourge of corruption, as the vast majority of American countries comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. African leadership and a commitment to transparency and accountability in all sectors is the most important response to fighting corruption, and the U.S. can contribute to this effort. This will be an important message to convey at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Perhaps most salient are Rotberg’s concerns about your security, given al-Shabab’s siege on the Westgate mall in 2013, and, most recently, the atrocious attacks at the University of Garissa. While your security is paramount, we must have confidence in the ability of U.S. security officials, working with their Kenyan counterparts, to lock down and secure the venues where you will be speaking. Anything less would be a victory for those who rely on terror to advance their objectives.
Where I agree with Professor Rotberg is in his encouragement for you to visit other African countries (although, again, not at the expense of Kenya). Nigeria is also deserving of a visit given General Buhari’s impressive electoral victory last month, and President Jonathan’s concession to Buhari. Ethiopia is an increasingly important partner on a range of security and commercial issues and would benefit from a visit. Hopefully an address to the African Union, based in Addis Ababa, is on your agenda before you leave office. Your participation in a summit of the International Conference on Great Lakes would be valuable in achieving a resolution to one of the continent’s most protracted conflicts in the eastern Congo.
Professor Rotberg is a long-time, dedicated Africanist as well as a friend and colleague. Yet, he does not seem to appreciate the historic aspect of your visit to Kenya.
In fact, Mr. President, the parallels between your visit to Kenya and President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in June 1963 are unmistakable. At the time, Ireland had not quite been independent 40 years. Kenya has been independent just over 50 years. Ireland was a poor country in the early 1960s, a generation away from its era as a Celtic Tiger that, unfortunately, was short-lived. Kenya is poised for economic growth above 6 percent for the next several years, but only ranks 147 out of 187 countries in the 2014 U.N. Human Development Index. And both countries deeply value their relationship with the U.S.
For President Kennedy, the first Catholic to become president of the United States, his visit to Ireland was a true homecoming and a chance to revitalize the bonds between the U.S. and Ireland as well as all Irish in the diaspora. Indeed, President Kennedy described his visit to the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic as “the best four days of my life.” In President Kennedy, the Irish saw their future.
The same will be true for you, Mr. President. Your visit will inevitably strengthen and elevate a part of the world that has been overlooked by the U.S. for too long. And, in you, virtually every Kenyan, and many Africans across the continent, will see a link to and future with the United States, given your strong family ties to the nation. The reality is that many in Africa and the United States have been waiting for this visit since the day you were inaugurated. Given our competitive and challenging world, and Africa’s emerging importance in it, your visit to Kenya is quite significant. Safe travels.
Witney Schneidman is a nonresident fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative in the Global Economy and Development program of the Brookings Institution. This piece was first posted on Brookings’ Africa in Focus blog.