Kenyans Have Mixed Views on Relationship with US

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Although many ordinary Kenyans welcomed President Mwai Kibaki's state visit to the U.S., political analysts here expressed concern that the visit will end up serving American rather than Kenyan interests. Those analysts are calling for a "genuine engagement" between the two nations.

Kibaki met with President Bush earlier this week at the White House, where the two leaders praised existing relations between their nations, noted their resolve to fight terrorism and pledged to assist each other on matters of mutual interest.

Some commentators here see the trip as a "begging" mission by the Kenyan leader.

Others, like political scientist Reuben Kyama, think the hosts will be setting the agenda. "America is likely to take over the trip to tell Kenyans want they want," he said.

In particular, U.S. officials were keen to increase U.S. security interests in Kenya, to monitor regional terrorism trends and penetrate any terrorism cells that may still exist, Kyama predicted.

The East African, an independent regional newspaper, said in an editorial that the visit should serve Kenya's interests.

It said Kenyans would be disappointed if Kibaki uses the rare opportunity the visit offers to focus on discussions on "Osama [bin Laden] and his goons," rather than on economic issues and ways of alleviating poverty.

In a straw poll, most Kenyans questioned by said they hoped the U.S. would help Kenya financially - by increasing investment in Kenya and helping the country to access development finance from international financial institutions.

Some said U.S. help was needed to revamp sectors of the economy that have suffered as a result of terrorism and fears of terrorism.

Kenya's tourism industry has been hard-hit by travel advisories issued by the U.S. and other governments, urging their citizens to avoid travel to the region because of terror threats.

The issuing of a new U.S. advisory last week came as a blow to many here who had hoped that government efforts to improve security would be acknowledged.

Kibaki is the first African head of state to be accorded a state visit during the Bush Administration.

Kyama said it was a sign of appreciation for Kenya's support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"Kenya's support for anti-terror war has been received well by the Americans," he said. "Americans are still interested in pursuing security interests here and would want to continue having a strategic relationship with Kenya."

Immunity deal causes concerns

There are tensions in the relationship, however.

Some politicians are uneasy about U.S. pressure on Kenya to sign an agreement promising not to bring U.S. citizens before the new International Criminal Court (ICC).

Acting under the American Service Members Protection Act, Washington is asking countries that have ratified the ICC treaty to agree to so-called "Article 98" deals granting immunity to U.S. citizens, or face a loss of military aid.

The ICC is the world's first permanent tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Washington argues it is not trying to sabotage the ICC and respects other countries' decisions to join the tribunal, but says the 90 nations that have done so should similarly respect the right of the U.S. to stay away.

More than 65 countries have so far signed "Article 98" agreements, the State Department said Wednesday.

Kenya's deputy minister for foreign affairs, Moses Wantegula, has confirmed that U.S. military assistance was at stake if Kenya doesn't sign the agreement, but lawmakers are arguing that doing so would undermine Kenya's sovereignty.

Watengula told parliament U.S. military aid to Kenya was "negligible" and its loss would not affect the country's military programs.

No government decision has yet been made, but Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka said Kibaki would not sign the treaty during his current visit to the U.S.

"We have no hurry. We must respect our nation," he said. "We will do what will is good for Kenya and the U.S. citizens."

Musyoka said he would be discussing the matter further with Secretary of State Colin Powell after Kibaki's visit.

According to the Washington-based Africa Security Research Project, Kenya received $1.5 million in military financing from the U.S. in 2003, although got no military help in terms of grants or low interest loans in 2002.

The U.S. has spent $6,000 in military training assistance to Kenya this year, similar to the figure it spent in 2002.

Anti-terrorist training in Kenya has benefited to the tune of $3.1 million since the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania in 1998.

Kenya is the only African country to have concluded a formal agreement with Washington for the use of local military facilities.

The agreement was signed in February 1980 and allows U.S. troops to use the port of Mombasa, as well as airfields at Embakasi and Nanyuki.

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