US President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Kenya had him sticking to the script -- extolling democracy, hinting on human right concerns but all the while being careful not to upset key regional allies in the fight against terror.
At a press conference in Nairobi he chastised Kenya for not respecting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights, a rejoinder by his counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta to the effect that it was a non-issue for him and his countrymen, put paid to that discussion.
In Addis Ababa, he wondered with a wry smile why Presidents would want to stay on forever, that he believed he could win a third term himself but not only can’t he run again as there is a two-term limit in the US, but also because he is really looking forward to shedding the trappings of power. But this was said to an audience that did not include any of the intended objects of his derision.
"The history of the US shows that where their national security issues are concerned they are not averse to overlooking the “puny” issues of democracy and human rights. Every US President’s foreign policy preoccupation is to diffuse or obliterate any threat to the country – as with all other presidents, the difference is that with the US they have the means to enforce their will around the world...
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the US’ main security threat comes from unconventional armies that can pack a disproportionate punch to their size. Not since America’s interventions in central America in the 1970s and 80s — an attempt to prevent communism taking hold in their back yard, has the US thrown all caution to the wind like it has in its war against terror.
Which brings us around to Obama’s choice of countries to visit during this trip.
Kenya was an obvious choice. His father was Kenyan, Obama hadn’t visited since 1987 and it would be nice to visit as POTUS (President of the US). Romanticism aside, Kenya is at the frontline of the war against terror with its involvement against Al Shabaab in Somalia and their history of horrific terror attacks – in 1998 and again in 2013, as well as numerous other smaller but no less significant attacks, along the coast and on its north eastern frontier.
During the planning of the trip there might have been concerns about the sticky issue of Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto being before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity during the post-election violence in 2007. The ICC dropping the case against Uhuru earlier this year must have caused a sigh of relief at the US State department.
We shouldn’t forget too that a senior US official had urged Kenyans not to vote Uhuru in 2012 because of the ICC case hanging over his head.
Ethiopia is also heavily committed in Somalia, but it also is the latest leading economic light on the continent. But they too are not perfect. Western human rights and environmental organisations incessant criticism of their treatment of dissenting views and journalists, as well as their disregard for environmental sensibilities in its huge infrastructural projects – the Gilgel Gibel III dam is a case in point, mean under other circumstances POTUS may have given Addis Ababa a wide berth.
For the same reasons that he visited Kenya and Ethiopia, he would have visited Uganda, Bururndi and even Rwanda, but then again maybe not.
"With Uganda the US may not have forgotten that we signed into law the anti-homosexuality bill against the White House’s best advice, even if the courts later overturned it on a technicality. Burundi’s just concluded election was held under a cloud, seen by many as an attempt by Pierre Nkurunziza to extend his tenure beyond the constitutional two term limit. And in Rwanda of course, moves are in advanced stages to lift the constitutional term limits.
Maybe for Obama these transgressions were a bit too much for him or for the constituencies he panders to back home and far outweighed the heavy lifting they are doing in the Horn of Africa and Darfur in Rwanda’s case.
Whichever way you look at it, Obama’s African trip was going to come with a mine field of issues wherever Airforce one set down, but in the end sentimentality won over real politic to make the trip possible.
We are not complaining.