U.S. Foreign Policy and Kenya


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Before Kofi Annan enters the history books with merits on a job well done in Kenya, before you buy into the propaganda of American goodwill in this story, it would be worth examining the quick turn of events that led to the February 28 power sharing agreement. 

President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga publicly signed the deal one afternoon to international acclaim. African heads of state got up before the cameras and talked about their “friends” in America and their “friends” in Europe. The mainstream media painted the U.S. as an agent of peace, with Condoleezza Rice and Kofi Annan forging a deal to end two months of post-election violence, effectively bringing two sworn enemies together to rule one country. 

But America’s foreign policy is habitually sugarcoated in the mainstream media. Reading between the lines usually gives a different, more accurate picture. 

No one knew which way Kenya would turn. The country was on the brink of civil war, more than 350,000 people had fled their homes, and upwards of 1,500 had died. The opposition was threatening more civil disobedience, the state was refusing to budge in negotiations, and Kofi Annan was at his wit’s end. No one had ever witnessed such conflict in the history of Kenya since its independence. 

Then came a thinly veiled threat from the United States on February 26 that suddenly made everyone stand up straight and behave. Chief mediator Kofi Annan suspended the talks later that day, forced Kibaki and Odinga into a room alone to deal with the issues head on for the first time. He emerged miraculously two days later with an agreement ready to be inked by both parties. All means of speculation could never reveal what really was discussed in that room, but some pieces of the puzzle are in plain view. 

Although Rice did not specify what she meant when she said that the U.S. was “exploring a wide range of possible actions,” the effects were felt immediately. “We will draw our own conclusions about who is responsible for lack of progress and take necessary steps,” she continued. This was in no uncertain terms a threat, but was it hollow, or can we already hear the reverberations of its sincerity? 

Let us go back in time a bit, to the day the election results were read in Kenya, when Election Commission chairperson Samuel Kivuitu delivered his bewildering speech and announced Mwai Kibaki the winner. It has been widely reported that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, George Bush, and the World Bank were the only ones to congratulate him amid blatant evidence of election rigging. Bush later retracted the statement and America’s foreign policy seemed to take a more sympathetic tone towards Raila Odinga, joining in with the chorus of international leaders who condemned the election as fraudulent. Museveni, however, stood by Kibaki’s side.

The Ugandan president, a great friend to America, who has consistently done its bidding, paid a visit to George Bush in late October 2007 seeking funds to revitalize the North in the event of the long-awaited peace accord with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But Museveni has a long history of misusing funds for his own personal gain, and the U.S. has its own history of using dictators to carry out their will. 

On his visit to the White House, Museveni had, among other things to discuss with the president, the intention to raise the topic of the upcoming Kenyan elections. One doesn’t have to look far to know which side Museveni was rooting for, since opposition leader Raila Odinga’s tribe, the Luos, are of the same bloodline as the LRA rebel group, which has threatened to overthrow the Ugandan government under Museveni, a Tutsi, since 1987. Having a Luo in State House would pose a direct threat to Museveni, and it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why he supplied Ugandan troops to Kibaki to assist in the bloody repression of opposition protests. 

What seems out of character, however, is Museveni’s sudden change of heart on February 27, one day after Condoleezza Rice issued her terse statement. “We condemn the violence that took place in Kenya. It was unfair on the affected families and the neighboring countries. It was ideologically confused,” he said, urging Kibaki and Odinga to reach an agreement and end the crisis. 

Something else happened on February 27. The U.S. mysteriously withdrew its troops from Kenya’s Northeastern Province (NEP) border with Somalia. Four days later it flexed its muscles and bombed the Somali border town of Dhoble, a precise hit on a Kenyan person wanted for questioning by the FBI over the 2002 bombing in Mombasa, according to official U.S. Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman. At least two Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into a house at 3:30 AM. Initial reports of 6 deaths and 20 injuries were ignored, and the official tally stands at 3 wounded civilians. We can scarcely expect to know the true numbers, but one thing is certain: the Somalis never forget. 

Kenya’s Northeastern Province is inhabited primarily by Somali Kenyans who, it is important to note, voted unanimously before independence to say they would prefer to be part of Somalia, a UN referendum the Queen, and subsequently the post-colonial government, wholly ignored, and which has remained a source of anxiety for the Kenyan government to date. The physical border with Somalia has been closed for a year now, and the Union of Islamic Courts that brought a degree of stability to the region since the central government collapsed in 1991, are reported to be taking control again, something the U.S. isn’t happy about, for obvious reasons. Kenya, on the other hand, is more concerned about its territory being annexed by the Somalis, especially now that its own internal security has seriously been called into question and that there was now genuine talk of striking oil. The Somalis have never officially renounced their aims to bring the whole of greater Somaliland together again, and the U.S. plays a key strategic role in the security of the border region. 

Secretary of State Rice meets with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on December 5, 2007 — photo from U.S. State Department

America has been trying to establish legitimate bases in Kenya for years, but the government has persistently refused. It learned the hard way what affiliation with the Americans can lead to in 1998 when the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi claimed the lives of 245 of its citizens, but the Kenyan government has remained tacit and compliant on certain U.S. military operations within its territories. For one, U.S. troops have been providing an indispensable security to the Somali border region of Kenya for years. The Kenyan army knows they could never fend off a serious Somali incursion. They depend on the U.S., which is why the withdrawal of troops on February 27, albeit superficially, could be understood as a threat.

Just ten days prior, George Bush was on his five-country “American Compassion” dancing tour of Africa under the guise of health and development aid, but he had something else on the agenda too. He was hoping to sell America’s new Unified Combatant Command project, AFRICOM. But the trip didn’t go so well. His lame duck presidency became all the more evident looking at the list of countries to visit, noting the absence of key partners such as Nigeria and Angola, countries that are openly opposed to the U.S. militarization of Africa. Protests in Tanzania upon the U.S. president’s arrival were another show of disapproval. 

AFRICOM, which was created in Stuttgart in mid 2006, is expected to be fully operational by September 30 of this year and ready for implementation in 53 African nations, basically all of Africa except Egypt. Part of its stated mission included bringing aid agencies under the AFRICOM umbrella, but when NGOs expressed concern that this would compromise their neutrality, the focus of AFRICOM seemed to shift to security and development. Given the U.S. military track record in both these areas, peace activists strongly oppose its implementation, as do almost all the countries on the list, with the exception of Liberia. 

The fear for Kenyans is that a stepped up presence of American troops in their territory could bring conflict to their doorstep, particularly in NEP’s predominantly Muslim province. In 2003 NEP councilors drafted a formal letter of complaint to the whole of the diplomatic corps in Kenya, protesting U.S. military presence. Here is an excerpt: “The residents of NEP of Kenya are aware that American forces in Djibouti have a declared mission of striking assumed terrorist cells inside Somalia and generally uprooting so called terrorism from the Horn of Africa. Therefore, there is no doubt that due to NEP being so close to the Horn of Africa, any military engagement that takes place in the Horn will spill over to our part of Kenya. 

“Since its launching, the U.S. led so-called Global war on Terrorism [has] had serious ramifications on the residents of this region,” the letter continues. “Already Kenyan Muslims are being subjected to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and fictitious prosecutions.” Extraordinary renditions of Kenyan citizens have been carried out to Ethiopia as well. If there turns out to be oil in NEP, it could add an all too familiar dimension that many fear would lead to another Iraq. 

The U.S. has traditionally relied on former colonialist nations like France and the UK to control African markets, but now, with a self-sufficient European Union, the catastrophe in the Middle East, and the specter of China looming over Africa’s mining industry, many fear the U.S. wants to bring its holy economic war to the motherland as it struggles to maintain its grasp on power elsewhere. Its primary interests are the humanitarian aid industry—because let’s face it, it’s a lucrative business—and natural resources. The U.S. isn’t happy about being cut out of the picture on big deals that are passing into Chinese hands, however, and Kenya is no exception. 

For the last three weeks, China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation has been ferrying containers into the NEP area of Isiolo to a plot of land where the Kibaki government has allowed a team of Chinese laborers to explore for oil. The deal, struck in April of 2006, allows the Chinese to explore for one year. That leaves the possibility for someone else to swoop in and grab the drilling deal if oil is indeed found, which geologists seem to be saying is highly likely. 

Experts believe Africa is largely under-explored and could have vast untapped reserves of oil. As markets dwindle elsewhere in the world, vultures circle over the promise of new sources. Striking oil could mean great things for Kenya. It could also mean endless conflict, as it has in so many other countries where foreign powers vie for control over natural resources—Somalia, Sudan, and the DRC come to mind. 

Election protesters chased by riot police in Kibera slums on Jan. 5, 2008 — photo by Khalil Senosi

In this season of relative instability in Kenya, it isn’t difficult to imagine people wanting to take advantage of the situation (that’s what countries do) especially now that certain territories may have highly coveted oil reserves. Believing that the U.S. intervened in the violent political standoff in the name of peace and stability is the Hollywood version of the story. 

America’s foreign policy has consistently shown a penchant for funding both its allies and their enemies, making it difficult to know which side they are on. The result is predictable: destabilization. When George Bush congratulated Kibaki on his highly contested presidency, did he make a slip of the tongue or was it all part of the White House’s real politick ballet? Which side were they on? Does it matter? On his visit to Liberia last month, the U.S. president made a rather poignant statement. “It’s easy to destroy a country,” he said. “It’s hard to rebuild a country.” And already, all around downtown Nairobi, the hearts and minds delegations from Washington zip around from business meeting to business meeting, striking deals to help Kenya rise from the ashes. 

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Anne Holmes is a photojournalist.