Something stirred in Kenya last week, driven in part by the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Nairobi. It was the belated realisation that, as a friend put it, the U.S. has no friends...only interests. Clinton swept through Nairobi on a multi-country tour and, as Kenyans saw it, hectored them about how to run their country and who to elect. Kenya will hold elections during the first half of next year after an interminable and probably un-constitutional delay, and the Presidency is being hotly-contested.
Incumbent Mwai Kibaki is termed out, and the major candidates will include Prime Minister Raila Odinga (who may or may not have been defeated in the 2007elections—widely acknowledged to have been rigged in Kibaki’s favour), former minister William Ruto (protégé of former dictator Daniel Arap Moi), and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta (son of former dictator Jomo Kenyatta). The latter two are defending themselves against charges of crimes against humanity during the 2007 election at the International Criminal Court, so it is perhaps understandable that Clinton’s somewhat high-handed lecture is seen as an endorsement of Odinga, who in common with his rivals has been parading around the country, trying to pick off crucial votes through promises of spoils which amount to a kind of tawdry bribery.
Many Kenyans may live their political lives in a bubble well-insulated by ethnic stereotypes and vapid homilies, but their bubble arguably has closer contact with reality than that inhabited by the American public, and people here are aware of the long and sordid track record of the United State when it comes to Janus-faced behaviour. Now, for the first time, a broader spectrum of the Kenyan public is beginning to wonder whether they might not find themselves on the receiving end of that behaviour. Kenyans have long been complacent about the role of the United States in their country and the region, and seldom point the finger at the U.S. for the comfort and aid it offered the country’s first two post-independence dictators—Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi (the U.S. dropped its unqualified support for Moi when the Cold War ended and even the “good” dictators in Africa began going out of fashion). But things are changing.
Paranoia and rumour play a large role in Kenya’s politics, and the perception that the United States is attempting to interfere in Kenya’s electoral process, accurate or not, will not only create a rift between the two countries, but will also very likely damage the integrity of the East African nation’s democratic process. Less-favoured Kenyan politicians (as Kenyatta and Ruto see themselves) will do their best make the election about meddlesome imperialists instead of corruption or economic redistribution or the provision of public services (and elite Kenyan politicians are nothing if not irresponsible demagogues...public policy is their least favourite topic of discussion).
The perception in Kenya is that the United States is actively backing Odinga. This might be true, and it might not. But the truth is less important to people’s responses here than the perception, and the backing for Odinga is being read through the ethnic lens which characterises much of Kenya’s political discourse. I’ve heard rumours that U.S. President Obama (whose father was Luo—tribal identities, historically fluid and artificial, have solidified since independence) is running a Luo “slush fund” aimed at promoting Odinga and his allies and keeping Kenyatta and his own cronies out. It’s been alleged that the Canadian firm which will be providing the automated voting system come election day has connections with the Canadian intelligence services, which in turn are monitored by the CIA (the implication being that these interests will work to actively rig the election in Odinga’s favour).
Paranoia combined with a very visible culture of official impunity is a dangerous thing. Too many up-and-coming Kenyan politicians have died brutal deaths in inexplicably un-explored conditions for people to be sanguine about the electoral and succession processes. People still remember Tom Mboya, J M Kariuki, and Robert Ouko. And so the rumours of assassination plots against the Prime Minister, and of Odinga’s own somewhat sordid dealings (aired by a disgruntled former ally in fine tabloid fashion, the author’s subsequent departure from the country sensationalised and read as a flight for his life—something he’s since denied), will play havoc with what passes for debate during the Kenyan election. President Kibabi made the extraordinary move of writing to the UN Security Council to say that because Ruto and Kenyatta are presidential front-runners, “their prosecution poses a ‘real and present danger’ to Kenya’s security”. Kibaki’s notion of justice is clearly risible, but this is another area where the U.S. has little form to complain, not itself being a signatory to these international legal agreements.
However outlandish the claims about Obama’s “tribalism” are and those of direct election rigging seem (as much as the Republican Party would love to make hay with rumours of Obama engaging in “tribal” Kenyan politics, reality is that the President has other, from his perspective slightly more pressing things on his mind), there are more serious grounds for worry. Somalia, which shares a northern border with Kenya, has become the new front line of the War on Terror. Don’t expect the Obama administration to admit as much. But then again, this is the administration which had the temerity to claim that its bombing Libya to smithereens wasn’t a war because it was using drones. Kenya’s own government helped to open this front in the war by invading Somalia last year, but the militarisation of the continent and of East Africa in particular, began many years ago. The Cold War marked one iteration of Africa as the proxy battleground of competing global ideologies, and saw an influx of weaponry and propaganda into the continent as the United States, former colonial powers, and the Soviet Union struggled for control of resources, strategic points, and hearts and minds.
The new battle between, by turns, fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, U.S. corporate interests (which wield U.S. military power) and regimes possessing varying degrees of legitimacy, and the U.S. national security apparatus and its “foes”, was officially launched with the creation of Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. Being sucked into the world of U.S. national security machinations bodes ill for African nations. In parts of Europe, incorporation into an America security umbrella meant (in Britain, for example) high spending on ‘defence’ and involvement in a series of wars which damaged the country’s capacity to provide services to its citizens. In East Asia it means incessant tensions as well as the internal conflict that massive foreign military bases introduce into domestic politics. In the Middle East, it has meant the initiation of umpteen wars over access to natural resources and the exacerbation and unconscionable prolongation of many other conflicts.
Kenya is being touted as the new regional power and is in very real danger of becoming the proxy of the United States. Already buffeted by grenade attacks, Nairobi, Mombasa and other Kenyan cities would find themselves further besieged if the country found itself embraced too fulsomely by the United States. And the United States would earn the rightful ire of Kenyans if its machinations were seen as endangering Kenya’s citizens. Being the local U.S. surrogate entails being armed to the teeth, and given the opaque state of Kenya’s procurement regime, it’s hard to imagine that the weaponry it would be receiving from the United States would remain in the “right” hands. So Kenyans would find themselves living in the latest dumping ground for the unregulated global arms industry, and the U.S. would find itself once again fuelling a criminal trade which brings only insecurity and peril to the lives of people around the world.
While I marvel that two men accused of crimes against humanity by the ICC have the gall to run for the highest office in Kenya (I similarly struggled to understand how a man undoubtedly guilty of similar crimes was re-elected in the United States in 2004), I do see how Clinton’s foray into domestic politics is emblematic of the broader, tone-deaf engagement of the United States with African governments. The days when U.S. pronouncements about democracy and good governance get taken at face value are gone. Obama’s lustre is gone. Many people in Kenya and other parts of Africa looked at the overthrow of Gaddafi and said not ‘Good riddance’, but instead gulped and broke into a sweat at the casual manner in which the U.S. and European powers brought massive armed force to bear on a regime which was not to their liking.
I suspect that the Kenyan paper which showed a cartoon figure of Clinton preaching about democracy while her shadow aired anti-Chinese sentiment had it right. As ever, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the welfare of a country’s citizens take a back seat when the economic and security interests of the United States government (too often distinct from the interests of the people that government is meant to be serving) are threatened. Clinton’s tour of the continent is really an anti-China tour, and in Kenya it was received as an affront to the nation’s autonomy and integrity. Reckless blowhards like Ruto were not alone in condemning Clinton’s visit as an exercise in neo-colonialism. He was joined by the editorial pages of sober and respectable newspapers, and columnists from the worlds of academia and politics, and by an increasingly loud chorus from the streets where ordinary Kenyans struggle to process the scale of U.S. hypocrisy. Each of these groups has their own motivations for protesting U.S. interference, but together they make a potent alliance.
Kenya’s election, a strangely non-ideological process, the candidates totally indistinguishable from one another at the level of policy, is already sufficiently fraught without the U.S. making things worse. Our government appears to be on the brink of executing a textbook version of the classic “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” play that we have perfected over the years. Political interference will lead to resentment and a poisoning of our international relations. Military interference will—as it has elsewhere, time and again—prove a boon to those predatory influences which seek to build up power bases in the region. And as ever, we will feel but a few of these consequences, the vast majority of the ills which our hubristic policy engenders being borne by Kenyans and their neighbours. The Obama administration should assume a critical distance from the conventional wisdom that has traditionally driven our foreign policy, should rein in our rabid military-industrial complex, and set about building relationships built on the mutual interests of our nations’ citizens rather than on artificial security concerns.
Achieving this relationship requires not only an outspoken civil society in Kenya, but a better-informed, more worldly critical public in the United States, willing and able to lobby its government.