Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya and Ethiopia this week marks something of a watershed for Africa. If his predecessors visited at all, they skirted problem hosts in favour of those such as Ghana and Senegal that could lay claim to being democracies. Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia would have made the cut.
The first is run by Uhuru Kenyatta, who was last year indicted by the International Criminal Court (the charges have since been dropped). Ethiopia recently held elections in which the ruling party won 100 per cent of the seats. Their inclusion is an acknowledgment of Africa’s rise on the world stage. Six out of 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies last year were in sub-Saharan Africa — Ethiopia and Kenya among them. Both are also on the frontlines of the struggle with Islamist terrorism that poses a menace in the Horn of Africa.
Mr Obama’s biographical links to Kenya will attract most attention back home. As president, Mr Obama has steered well clear of his father’s country. Even today, Donald Trump, the maverick Republican, peddles his “birtherist” conspiracy of Mr Obama’s foreign origins. Among Kenyans, however, Mr Obama is an uncomplicated superstar. His celebrity status may prove useful in what will doubtless be some awkward exchanges with Mr Kenyatta. There is also the passing irony that Mr Obama’s father was fired from the Kenyan civil service by Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father, thus triggering a downwards slide from which he did not recover.
Mr Obama’s thorniest challenge will be to convince Nairobi to overhaul its response to al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group that has carried out two mass slaughters in Kenya in the past two years. The first in 2013 on the Westgate shopping mall claimed 67 lives. The second atrocity at Garissa University, which took place in April, claimed 147 lives. Nairobi was also the site of one of al-Qaeda’s most brazen attacks, an onslaught that demolished the US embassy in 1998.
Mr Kenyatta plans to request more counter-terrorist equipment from the US. But the larger problem is Kenya’s draconian reaction to the atrocities, which is feeding al-Shabaab’s supply of homegrown recruits. The pattern of extra-judicial killings, harassment of Muslim civil rights groups, and mass incarceration must stop. No amount of US surveillance equipment can make up for this.
Yet Mr Obama also needs to walk a fine geopolitical line. At a time when China continues to step up activity in east Africa, the US can ill-afford to adopt a hectoring tone. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have made dramatic strides in the past decade, each now entering the lower range of middle-income economies. China’s willingness to provide billions of dollars free of politicised conditions has weakened the west’s intellectual hold on the development agenda. If the US is to regain the influence it needs, it must become more commercially involved. Mr Obama’s visit coincides with the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. This is a good forum for Mr Obama to proselytise the link between a vibrant civil society and innovation — a topic on which China is largely mute.
Mr Obama’s critics say he lacks a big Africa theme. In contrast, George W Bush provided large aid packages to tackle HIV-Aids and Bill Clinton’s Africa trade initiative eliminated many barriers to the US market. But this is unfair. Mr Obama is dealing with a far more dynamic continent at a time when the US has lost its monopoly on capital and expertise. His task must be to influence Africa’s rising economies through the power of argument.