Kenya Seen as Anchor to US Position in East Africa

The ongoing turmoil in Kenya, set off by last week’s disputed election results, is prompting considerable concern here about the future of the East African nation that has served as Washington’s longest-standing and most reliable ally in a deeply troubled region.

The administration of President George W. Bush dispatched its top Africa aide, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Fraser, to Nairobi Friday to help mediate between the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The crisis, which has reportedly claimed at least 600 lives in ethnic clashes between Kibaki’s mainly Kikuyu loyalists and members of Odinga’s Luo and other smaller minority groups, was set off by the Dec. 30 declaration by the electoral commission that Kibaki had narrowly won reelection.

Despite widespread evidence of fraud and other irregularities, U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger quickly congratulated Kibaki, a position that Washington was forced to reverse in the days that followed. On Jan. 2, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband joined the African Union (AU) in a call for an end to the ethnic violence and for a "compromise" among the country’s political leaders "that puts the democratic interests of Kenya first."

Amid indications of progress both in tamping down the violence and in arranging some kind of power-sharing agreement, Fraser, who has met with both Kibaki and Odinga, extended her stay in Nairobi this week, the State Department announced Tuesday.

Analysts here said they were worried that Kibaki’s unilateral naming of 17 cabinet members Tuesday could re-inflame the situation, particularly because of its timing – immediately before the arrival of AU President John Kufuor, who is to take charge of the mediation effort.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormick Tuesday denounced Kibaki’s move as "disappointing" and stressed that both sides needed to "find a way to open up channels of communication so that they can come to a mutually acceptable political solution to get themselves out of this political crisis."

Kenya has long served as an anchor for U.S. economic and geo-strategic interests in East Africa and a major beneficiary of U.S. economic and military assistance. Its possible destabilization as a result of political and ethnic tensions is of considerable concern here.

"Kenya is tremendously important to the U.S. and to the region," according to Michelle Gavin, an Africa specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The idea of a seriously weakened state or the prospect of a failed state in Kenya – which would [effectively extend] the failed-state space already occupied by Somalia – is hugely problematic."

Indeed, Kenya has been a key ally and fellow-victim in Washington’s anti-terrorist efforts since even before the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. More than 200 Kenyans were killed and several thousand more wounded in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.

In 2002, it was hit again by simultaneous attacks against the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in which 13 people, including 10 Kenyans, were killed and against an Israeli charter plane that had just taken off from the city’s airport.

For the five years that followed the 1998 attack, Kenya was the second biggest recipient – after Nigeria – of U.S. military, counter-terrorist, and security aid in sub-Saharan Africa, receiving a total of nearly $80 million through 2004, according to a recent investigation by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.

Those amounts have remained stable since then, according to Pentagon and State Department documents. In October 2006, the Bush administration also removed certain restrictions on military training of Kenyan officers that had been imposed after Nairobi refused to sign an agreement with Washington to exempt U.S. personnel from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

While Nairobi has declined to approve stringent anti-terrorism legislation urged on it by Washington, it has worked closely with Washington in tracking, detaining, and, in some cases, deporting suspected terrorists, particularly in the aftermath of the 2002 attacks. That cooperation has reportedly alienated much of Kenya’s Muslim community, which reportedly voted in large numbers for Odinga.

Nairobi has long provided access for U.S. naval vessels to Mombasa’s port facilities. More recently, it has provided access for U.S. aircraft to Kenyan airbases, particularly for use in Washington’s interventions in Somalia in the early 1990s and again in support of Ethiopia’s rout of Islamist forces in December 2006, as well as in humanitarian and other peacekeeping operations in eastern and central Africa.

"They allowed us to use their bases while we were conducting operations in and out of Somalia, and they still allow us to use those bases today," retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, a former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Times this week.

Kenya also handed over more than 40 Islamist suspects to the Ethiopian-backed government in Mogadishu and to Addis Ababa itself after the Ethiopian offensive and transferred a suspect in the 2002 attacks to U.S. authorities, who promptly flew him to the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba last March.

Moreover, the country’s ports and transportation infrastructure has made it the major hub for both commerce and humanitarian assistance for its landlocked neighbors.

"Whenever there’s a humanitarian crisis in the area, everything goes through Kenya – either through the port of Mombasa or by air through Nairobi and sometimes Mombasa, too," said Ambassador David Shinn, a retired diplomat who spent much of his career in East Africa.

"It’s also very important to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern [Democratic Republic of] Congo," he added, noting that last week’s violence had a "dramatic and immediate impact" throughout the region.

Moreover, southern Sudan, which could become independent in 2011 under the terms of the 1997 Sudan Peace Agreement, has increasingly reoriented its trade – including the possible export of oil via a pipeline – to run to Mombasa, he said. "In theory, Kenya will become more important to the U.S., rather than less so."

Washington has also touted Kenya as a political and economic model for the rest of the Africa, particularly since Kibaki and Odinga teamed up to defeat the then-ruling KANU Party. The economy, which was stagnant in the 1990s, has grown at a healthy rate in recent years, although Gavin noted that the rich-poor gap has actually widened under Kibaki in part due to rampant corruption – to which she believes Washington and other Western donors should have attached a much higher priority.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.