John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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President Obama Visits Kenya and Ethiopia

by John Campbell
July 22, 2015

A security guard walks past a wall mural depicting U.S. President Barack Obama outside the Go-Down Art Centre in Kenya's capital Nairobi, July 17, 2015. Kenya is preparing itself for a visit by U.S. President Obama in the coming week. Seen as a son of the East African nation owing to his father being Kenyan, many see this visit as a long overdue homecoming, while others question how long authorities can keep up the upgrades after Obama is gone. (Courtesy Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)


Whatever decision the White House makes in selecting the countries included on a presidential visit to Africa, it is bound to draw critical scrutiny. On July 24, President Obama departs for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. Two reasons for these two countries seem immediately clear. An important focus of the trip will be the African Union (AU), which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held this year in Nairobi, Kenya. The AU is the lodestar of the “African solutions to African problems” policy, while the Entrepreneurship Summit demonstrates a focus on economic development. Both are policy goals keenly supported by the United States. However, there is also a symbolic significance to this decision. Many in Africa have questioned why President Obama, with a Kenyan father, has not yet visited Nairobi during his presidency. This absence has contributed to disappointment in Africa that the Obama presidency has not been particularly African in its focus.

There is also a bilateral dimension to the trip. Both countries are important strategic partners of the United States. Both have recently experienced periods of rapid economic growth. Neither is a model of good governance, though Kenya’s new constitution is a step in the right direction. Both also have blemished human rights records and a history of problematic elections.

Following Nigeria and South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya are in the second tier of African states in terms of strategic importance to the United States. Both have been on the frontlines of the struggle against terrorism and have cooperated closely with the United States on a host of issues. Both, however, appear to be on a downward trajectory with respect to human rights.

In Kenya, police and other security services commit human rights violations largely with impunity. Their methods with respect to certain minorities, such as Somalis who are Kenyan citizens, and also foreign Somalis in refugee camps, are often abusive and likely generate support for jihadist terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab. Of late, the government has sought legislation that would restrict the media and civil society that is rightly critical of the administration. Finally, Kenya has an abysmal record with respect to cooperation with the International Criminal Court, to which it has formal treaty obligations. In Ethiopia meanwhile, recent elections were a sham, and the ruling party is increasingly repressive. There are growing restrictions on the media and civil society there as well. New legislation restricts freedom of speech and association, ostensibly as anti-terrorism measures. Moreover, the Ethiopian security services already have a history of war crimes.

In Kenya and Ethiopia, the Obama administration must balance U.S. strategic interests with human rights concerns. In a period of resurgent terrorism, security issues are likely to be at the forefront. One can only hope that President Obama’s agenda will also include human rights.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Mungwana Mwana

    Kenya pays the price for being by far the most open society in Eastern Africa. As is evident in this piece and many by Westerners, there is disproportional emphasis on Kenya’s human rights issues simply because the state does not control the flow of information in Kenya. Anyone who has spent at least a month in either Ethiopia and Kenya knows that despite its issues, Kenya is millenia ahead of Ethiopia. Obviously that will not be evident for someone sitting in some distant office in Washington.

    Its obvious Kenya would get less acerbic coverage if all countries in the region had similarly free and independent media and could report 100% of what goes on in their countries.

  • Posted by nelson onduma

    His exccelency the president of united states of America on behalf ov some ugandans who love ur glorious en historic visit to kenya i believe there is tym 4evrthig coz most ov kenyans thought u wont step in ur late dads soil due to what had been taking place in past. ur well come.only here in uganda we need ur help financialy to help da old and disable especialy women,children.

  • Posted by Mulu Chokele

    I am not a politician. However, Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia is not only historical, I would assume it is going to create a significant awareness to the whole world. There are unimaginable number of countries and people who do not know that Africa is a CONTINENT. Africa needs awareness and visibility from other countries in order to grow economically. I am just hoping president Obama on his African union meeting addresses a few issues such as human rights, women rights, education and poverty. In general Obama needs to teach African leaders the meaning of democracy and how democracy functions in other countries. It looks like that democracy is aggressively evaporating in to the air from the nations of Africa. I would think freedom of speech should be mandatory for all human (Birthright).

  • Posted by John Navarra

    When I wrote the Africa platform for the 2008 National Democratic Convention I was hoping that at some point a President Obama would present a comprehensive economic plan for relations in Africa. As a Senator he sponsored a great bill involving the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has given some attention to Africa but I was hoping through the help of Susan Rice who was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Clinton he would present a good economic plan for Africa. Now a security plan is also a priority. He has recently made Cuba an Iran as his legacy foreign policy initiatives. I was hoping African relations would be a big part of his legacy.

  • Posted by Kelkay Wossen

    Balancing the US strategic interest with human right concerns shouldn’t necessarily involve recognizing a sham election as democratic. Calling the Ethiopian government as “democratically elected” is noting more than treason to the principle of democracy and human right- ideal that we thought the American people and government holds dearly. The president could have come up with better ways to secure the strategic interest with out acknowledging a rigged election as “democratic” and trading on the idea of democracy.
    The Chines straight forward blind eye to human right- never talking about it- is much better than talking about it in a wrong way.

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