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Kenya Becomes Difficult US Ally in Troubled Horn of Africa

  • Nico Colombant

As the United States government tries to help improve the volatile situation in the Horn of Africa, it has also had a difficult time with the regional heavyweight Kenya. VOA reports on what American analysts are calling a frayed, but not broken, relationship with a long-standing ally.

The ongoing violence in Somalia, as well as persistent piracy in the Gulf of Aden, troubled election processes in Sudan and Ethiopia, and peace deals not being implemented, are some of the many issues the U.S. government is involved in in the Horn of Africa, either through military or diplomatic pressure.

Analysts say Kenya is supposed to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

But recently senior U.S officials raised concerns that refugees in eastern Kenya were being recruited to fight in Somalia, and Kenya's government is turning away captured pirates because it says it is not getting enough international money to boost its judicial system.

The U.S. government has also expressed its frustration with Kenya's national unity government over its slow pace of reform.

At the same time, Washington-based Africa expert Steven McDonald says Kenya remains an important U.S. ally, which receives lots of American aid.

A recent example is the United States committing $2.7 billion for the next five years to help fight HIV infection in Kenya.

"It is a little bit of a schizophrenic approach that we have here because Kenya has been a valued partner in many ways from trade and investment, to tourism, to the fight on international terrorism," said Steven McDonald.

Kenya's government has also been critical of U.S. policies. Following a U.S. raid that killed a Kenyan-born alleged Islamic extremist in Somalia last year, Kenya's foreign minister said his country had not been warned about the operation. Moses Wetangula said at the time it was a manifestation of what he called "Lone Ranger behavior."

There has been progress on reform. Kenyan lawmakers recently approved a new constitution that will be submitted to a referendum. If approved, it would eliminate the position of prime minister, create a Senate, and give more power to regions.

But McDonald, the Africa director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says many questions still remain on how the U.S. government should deal with Kenya.

"How tough do you get with Kenya? How valuable is it as a partner? I do not get the feeling that that is a decision that has been fully made within the administration as to how to proceed on Kenya, how tough to get with Kenya," he said. "And, the Kenyans, of course, are not helping the situation by being very defensive, by even openly being critical of people like the Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] and Ambassador Johnnie Carson when they have come with firm messages, but always messages intended to indicate the value we give to the relationship."

During an African trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year, Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga said U.S. officials should not lecture Kenyans. Many Kenyans also hoped President Barack Obama, whose late father was a Kenyan, would visit instead, and that his administration would be particularly helpful to Kenya. Instead, they have gotten different signals.

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Kenyan Mwangi Kimenyi, thinks U.S. travel sanctions, which have been placed on more than a dozen senior Kenyan officials for allegedly trying to block reform, are misguided.

"The United States needs to be more strategic in dealing with Kenya, " said Mwangi Kimenyi. "I think there have been some missteps. A lot of the changes will have to come from the country itself. I know that one of the main things the United States has done is to ban some visas of some government officials but I do not think that is the best way to go."

That is just one problem senior figures in Kenya face.

The International Criminal Court will begin investigations later this year into the deadly violence that followed Kenya's election in 2007. Trials against major political leaders accused of being behind the violence could start in 2012, which is when the next election is scheduled.

Tom Hull, a long-time high-level American diplomat in Africa, says the issue of an African ally with internal problems is nothing new.

"If we go back over the past few decades in Africa, we always come up against this conundrum, countries that are important to us in a bilateral relationship, but are not performing in terms of good governance the way we would hope they would," said Tom Hull. "So this is a chronic problem and it is not unusual. All we have to do is try to be persistent, and focusing on our long term objectives in terms of democracy and one day these things may change."

Critics of this approach say African countries with important security or economic value are repeatedly given a pass by U.S. administrations on their internal shortcomings, and that strategic and financial interests always trump other considerations.