High stakes for Kenya as ‘Uncle Sam’ decides

Wednesday November 04 2020
US election.

A woman casts her vote at the Hazel Parker Playground on Election Day on November 3, 2020 in Charleston, United States. PHOTO | MICHAEL CIAGLO | GETTY IMAGES | AFP


Just which political party brings more benefits to Kenya when in power in the US?

As Americans headed to the polls last night, Nairobi, some 10,000km away, was keenly interested in the outcome as it would continue or alter the relations between the two countries.

Donald Trump, the incumbent, is seeking to win his second term against former Vice President Joe Biden.

Both have spoken little on their Africa policies, perhaps signalling how low the continent ranks in their foreign policy agenda.

Trump never visited Africa in his first term. Biden indicated the US would continue to defend and work with all allies who support American interests.

However, Africa still has key US allies, especially in the fight against terrorism, which both Republicans and Democrats have supported as a priority for national security.


“With the US, any engagements with Africa or other regions has been about the US first,” Mr George Mucee, the Practice Leader at Fragomen-Kenya, a migration consultancy firm in Nairobi, told the Nation.

“What matters is the how? Trump is a straight-in-your-face person while Biden may be more amiable, yet firm in implementing US Policies,” Mr Mucee argued in an interview on Tuesday.

In his early months in office, Trump made a controversial comment about Africa being a ‘shithole’, besides initially locking out citizens from specific countries from entering the US, allegedly for security reasons.


Those very reasons may have defined his type of leadership. But Mr Mucee argues that it also showed he will support allies that can aid his policies.

“Trump is heavy on national security and anyone who helps advance his homeland safety is a friend. Kenya has benefited immensely on security financing to help counter terrorism.”

Last year, the US and Kenya signed an updated Security Governance Joint Country Action Plan meant to “enhance bilateral cooperation on civilian security, governance and anti-corruption efforts”, according to a Department of State dispatch in May last year.

That meant the US continues to support Kenya’s refugee hosting programmes as well as health, education and security support.

In August 2018, Presidents Trump and Uhuru Kenyatta, at the White House, established the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue framework, elevating their bilateral relations to a ‘strategic partnership’.

This meant the focus was to be two-way, based on “shared values, mutual cooperation and a common vision for free, open and secure societies”, a dispatch indicated at the time.

Last year in May, then Foreign CS Monica Juma signed a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue Framework with US Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan, to prioritise economic ties and investment opportunities.

Yet these may only be indicative of America First policy, rather than deepening friendship.

Ahead of elections, some 4,200 youths from across 12 African countries including Kenya this week cited the US as still an influential country on the continent despite the challenge posed by  China.

The survey commissioned by Ichikowitz Family Foundation (IFF) and conducted by PSB Research (an affiliate of WPP Group), interviewed youths from Kenya, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It found that 74 per cent of the youth consider the US influential and 83 per cent of this category think that influence is positive.

Yet Trump himself was regarded highly by just six per cent, nearly half what the Obama-Biden administration had. Still, two in 10 of the surveyed group indicated he could rise in popularity should he win the second term, suggesting perhaps a deeper focus on the continent.

Trump's predecessors had begun or continued aid programmes such as President's Emergency Response to AIDs Relief (Pepfar), which was established by George W Bush) to support HIV/Aids patients in Africa. The scheme pumped money for education and humanitarian support to Africa.

Biden and Obama also began the Young Africa Leadership Initiative, which aimed at inculcating governance values among the youth.

Trump has, for his part, been keener on business ties. He launched Prosper Africa, an initiative meant to counter China and establish channels for US firms. It came from the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development Act of 2018 (BUILD Act), which changed the previous Overseas Private Investment Corporation into the US Development Finance Corporation, a $60 billion fund.

In Kenya, he launched talks for a trade agreement, which critics charged could, however, expose Kenya to a harmful trade imbalance.

Last week, US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle MacCarter said Kenya and US need a Free Trade Agreement to clear uncertainty that may emerge after existing trade deals under AGOA expire in 2025.

"It makes sense that the US would look to such a partner for the first modern FTA in the region," he wrote in the Nation, arguing about risks for Kenya as the biggest economy in the region should it have no trade agreement.

"To do that, we must look beyond Agoa to negotiate an agreement that will spur economic growth throughout East Africa. The first round of negotiations began on July 8 and the second this month."

A bulletin by the South African Institute for Security Studies indicated a Biden Presidency may at least bring Africa "respect" not seen in Trump's utterances.

"All this shows US Democrats are generally regarded as better for Africa than Republicans. But this can also lead to complacency," the report last month stated, referring to past Democrat failures such as not intervening in the Rwandan Genocide during Bill Clinton years.