In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s decision to make Ghana his first visit to the continent during his Administration this summer, speculation is growing about his so-called “snub” of his father’s homeland. If you look at his action as a slap at Kenya, you would be short-sighted. His action is actually one of hope for Kenya.
Since its independence in 1963, the Republic of Kenya has been a key African ally for the United States. In addition to offering rear bases for critical American military engagement in the Middle East, Kenya has been a reliable supporting vote in the United Nations and has been an anchor of the troubled Horn of Africa through the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development. The country is one of America’s top 10 trading partners in Africa, and in the recently released report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on what U.S. corporations think about investing in Africa, Kenya remains near the top of the list of African countries in which the corporate community is interested.
Moreover, the current leaders of the Kenyan government – President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga – were among the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in the 1990s that produced a multi-party government in their country. Unfortunately, these heroes of the struggle for democracy have had trouble untangling themselves from years of political competition in order to come together in a fully functional coalition government. Unity governments are always difficult because one has to determine how to work together but still maintain one’s political options.
President Obama made clear long before he took office how important good governance is to him. In a survey produced by a civil society coalition led by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation in 2007, Obama said: “I will make improved governance a priority for foreign assistance.” This message has been reiterated this year to Kenya directly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnny Carson.
Rather than take the easy negative view, we must look at this as President Obama saying to two feuding cousins: “Stop the infighting and work together for the sake of the family.” Most of us have been in that situation when dealing with fractious family, and we took our action with hope and not a punitive spirit. Kenya has been and remains important to us, and the U.S. government is not saying otherwise by selecting Ghana as his first stop in Africa. There is plenty of time for the Kenyan leaders to resolve their differences so this Son of Kenya can return to a nation that has regained its customary place as one of Africa’s success stories.