Clinton’s stern yet weak diplomacy

Sunday August 09 2009

The new US Secretary of State’s first visit to Kenya was the first stop on her first African tour.

What are we to make of it? Beyond being relieved that Internet access and traffic circulation are back to their usual poor levels (having become unusually bad around the time she was here)?

The public excursions first: The 8th forum on the USA’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

I cannot say there is much to write home about here.

There was, however, consensus on a couple of things. Africa is underutilising the provisions of the Act, exporting only a miniscule number of the products covered by Agoa.

In fact, oil accounts for just over 90 per cent of export earnings under Agoa — the bulk of which comes from countries whose political economy puts paid to the nonsense that investment trails good governance.


Often, the reverse could be said to be true.

However a country is run, if it is oil producing, the investment taps are open.

As for other exports, questions arise as to the conditions under which they’re produced — and the quality of the jobs Agoa is said to be responsible for.

What there was not consensus on — or apparently, even much discussion — was how Africa could change this state of affairs.

Not all African countries are going to suddenly develop the impetus to assist producers to widen the scope of exports.

Not all African countries are going to suddenly discover exploitable petroleum reserves.

And no African countries are going to sacrifice jobs of any kind — regardless of their quality.

Then there was the “town hall” meeting at the University of Nairobi.

Taifa Hall was packed with students representing many of Kenya’s universities, faculty from the University of Nairobi and Kenyan civil society.

Tightly facilitated by the Cable News Network and the Kenya Television Network, the meeting saw the Secretary of State adroitly flip all questions on America’s potential roles with respect to Kenya’s stalled democracy project back to Kenyans themselves.

Including suggestions as to what Kenyan civil society could and should do — as though it is not already doing the same things. Or trying to. But... fair enough. A meeting of that nature could hardly go beyond scratching the surface, anyway.

Then there were the private excursions.

Discussions with President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

By all accounts, Mrs Clinton delivered a succinct message from US President Barack Obama: Shape up. Because America believes they can shape up. Or face vague consequences — including, interestingly, the threat of individually targeted sanctions.

Good, because individually targeted sanctions clearly work so much better than generalised ones linked to flows of overseas development assistance — the impact of which can easily be evaded by anybody with even a modicum of means. But which individuals? For what breaches? In what timeframe? Who knows?

That vagueness is no doubt linked to the second private excursion.

Discussions with the head of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia — an erstwhile leader of the Islamic Courts Union, which was unceremoniously removed from de facto control by the Americans, thereby paving the way for the entry of Al Shabaab and its host of foreign fighters…

Oops. From the frying pan into the fire. Mistakes happen.

They cannot, however, once recognised, always be corrected.

Does the TFG now exercise control over any territory worth speaking of?

The former United Nations compound is overrun by Al Shabaab, among whose leadership nary a Somali is to be seen.

Suicide bombings have emerged for the first time since the beginning of Somalia’s long civil war.

At least one humanitarian agency has withdrawn entirely, realising it was spending more on private security provision for its workers than on service delivery.

It is an unmitigated disaster. Will unconditional support from the US now resolve this? Will more arms? Again, who knows?

The problem is that feasible ways forward — for both Kenya and Somalia — are so unclear that we are all clutching at straws.

Our two principals are obviously unable or unwilling to bring their Cabinet and their parties to the Grand Coalition Government to book.

But we’ll maintain the fiction that they’re not only in control, but actually concerned about ending impunity in the face of succession in 2012.

The TFG is obviously in deep trouble. But we’ll maintain the fiction that it’s in control — because we simply do not know what else to do.

In this sense, the diplomacy — hard-hitting or polite — ultimately means nothing. Kenyans and Somalis have every reason to share the American concern about security in the region.

Kenyans are overrun by crime and insecurity, including the threat of terrorism as a form of organised crime. And Somalis are literally overrun by terrorists right now.

In Kenya, does the solution to this shared concern lie in bolstering up security agencies that arguably not only fail to combat crime and insecurity, but actively contribute to the same?

Witness the mayhem, plunder and rape occasioned by all three joint military/police operations in Mount Kenya, Mandera and Samburu this year.

In Somalia, does the solution to this shared concern really lie in bolstering a government it is now impossible to determine the extent of Somali support for? Witness the size of territory under control or threat of control by Al Shabaab.

Who knows? Somehow, I doubt both propositions.

But just as was the case with the public excursions, the private excursions of the Secretary of State left little room for real debate on these issues — none of which are easy debates to have.

And which, to be frank, we do have to have for ourselves before expecting co-operation and diplomacy to be able to lend support to.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC)