By Mutuma Ruteere
Writing in the East African, Mutuma Ruteere discusses why security was likely to top Obama’s agenda in his historic first visit to Kenya and Ethiopia as President of the United States.
This article was first published in The East African on July 25, 2015
Beyond the sentimental hoopla about US President Barack Obama’s “homecoming” visit to East Africa, it is important to remember that regional and America security interests will be the central agenda of the visit.
Until the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, US policy towards the region was largely one of indifference.
In the 1990s following the end of the Cold War, the region had been largely reduced to the subject of humanitarian assistance in US foreign policy calculation. The US pull out from Somalia in 1993 and the weak interest in the unfolding genocide in Rwanda in 1994 attests to that post-Cold War policy.
President Obama visits East Africa when the major wars of the 1990s have come to an end but new security crises that threaten both African countries as well as US interests stalk the region and the continent.
In the Great Lakes region, the push for a third term for Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza threatens to plunge the region into a new crisis of violence and refugee flows.
Obama, like George Bush before him, is likely to pay more attention to the political developments in Burundi to avoid the mistakes of Bill Clinton’s administration with regard to Rwanda in 1994.
The mournful cries of the ghosts of the Rwanda genocide and the inaction of the US continue to haunt its foreign policy on the region. The lessons of the its failure with regard to the Rwanda genocide partly explain the strident opposition by the US to this week’s elections in Burundi amidst a crisis that threatens the fragile stability of the country.
Not surprisingly, the US opposition to a third term for Rwanda’s President Kagame has been more muted. By all metrics of governance, Rwanda is not Burundi. In Rwanda, the US concern over political and civil rights is balanced by the admirable competence of the Kagame administration in rebuilding Rwanda from genocidal ruin into a modern and effective nation state.
Whereas Burundi may feature in some of the discussions in Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, it is the problem of terrorism that will be at the centre of the agenda in the visit to the two countries.
Kenya and Ethiopia are united in the view that Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorist group presents an existential threat to their vision of the nation-state and have committed considerable military resources against the group.
On the other hand, the US security interests are inescapably tied to the interests of these eastern African countries by the reality of Al Shabaab’s violent ambitions against America and its alliance Al Qaeda.
Credible reports that Al Shabaab may have established links with Syria and Iraq-based ISO and the Nigerian Boko Haram movements elevates the group to top of list of US security threats.
In their conversations with Obama, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Ethiopian counterpart, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will most likely press the regional case for increased US support and strengthening of cooperation to the African Union-led military intervention in Somalia.
One key lesson from the policy blunders of the West in the African conflicts of the 1990s is that African security problems are best addressed by African countries, through regional mechanisms such as the African Union or the Economic Community of West Africa (Ecowas), with the diplomatic and financial support of the West.
Rwanda and Somalia demonstrated that western countries will not sacrifice blood and treasure to stop Africans from killing fellow Africans.
No US president can survive the political costs of interventions in places like Somalia that most Americans consider to be of no strategic value. On the other hand, neighbouring states such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda can easily sell to their populations the compelling necessity of military action and are willing to stay the course no matter the costs.
The evolving regional action against Boko Haram in Nigeria bringing in Chad and Cameroon points to the attractiveness of this regional approach.
Whatever criticisms the rest of the world may make on the conduct of the African Union mission to Somalia, they are unlikely to call for their withdrawal as there is yet no viable alternative available to replace them.
Moreover, there is nothing in the record of more internationalist, UN-led military missions to suggest that UN-led missions have a better human rights record or are indeed more effective in dismantling insurgent or terrorist movements.
Migrations from the eastern Africa region, and in particular from Ethiopia and Somalia have also become part of the security debates and policy concerns in the US and the West.
For the US and the West in general, keeping East Africans at home is not just an economic issue but also a security matter as some fear that migrant communities may become the next recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Keeping potential migrants at home however presents a much more complex challenge to the US, western countries and even the source countries.
The ultimate solution of course is the building of competent effective states that provide security and welfare goods to its citizens – in other words, state building. Unfortunately, the US record and capabilities in state-building in other countries has been less stellar than its abilities in breaking up those it has gone to war against.
State and nation building is the stuff of every day policy making, policy implementation and management of politics and President Obama will have little to offer his eastern African hosts beyond the history of his own country.
Unfortunately for Obama, some of the history of the US may not provide the kind of human rights lessons he may want to pass along to President Kenyatta or Prime Minister Desalegn of Ethiopia. They may point to the many of the imperfections of the US, such as slavery, segregation and continuing racism.
However, Obama’s own presidency is the most compelling argument for democracy and change – that a country so imperfectly formed and founded can still emerge to be the symbol of immeasurable possibilities for people of Africans descent.
Ultimately, and beyond the good policy arguments, in Africa, President Obama is himself the best argument for US foreign policy values.
His own unlikely rise to the leadership of the world’s most powerful state is a lesson in the possibilities that the values of equality and democracy ultimately create better opportunities for all.