Kenya: Current Issues and U.S. Policy*

By Blanchard, Lauren Ploch | Current Politics and Economics of Africa, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Kenya: Current Issues and U.S. Policy*


Blanchard, Lauren Ploch, Current Politics and Economics of Africa


INTRODUCTION

The U.S. government has long viewed Kenya as a strategic partner and an anchor state in East Africa. After Al Qaeda's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania, this partnership took on a new dimension as Kenya emerged on the frontline in the struggle against international terrorism. Kenya expanded its efforts to counter violent extremism in the region in late 2011, when it launched military operations in Somalia against a regional Al Qaeda -affiliate," Al Shabaab. The United States has also valued Kenya's role as a peacemaker among its neighbors and as a host to refugees from across the troubled region.

With U.S. aid levels approaching $1 billion annually, Kenya ranks among the top recipients of U.S. foreign assistance globally. However, governance and human rights challenges periodically complicate Congress's annual deliberations on aid to Kenya and factor into its oversight of U.S. policy toward the country. Corruption and abuses of power have fueled grievances among Kenya's diverse population. Periodic ethnic disputes-notably the widespread civil unrest that followed contested elections in December 2007- have marred the country's generally peaceful reputation. Impunity for state corruption and political violence remains a major challenge that threatens to undermine the country's long-term stability. Balancing these concerns against U.S. security priorities in the region may pose challenges for Congress in the near term.

As Kenya approaches its next elections in March 2013, there is significant uncertainty regarding the potential for further unrest. Public opinion polls suggest that voting may largely follow ethnic lines, as in previous elections. Some analysts view the pending prosecution of four Kenyans at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged involvement in the 2007- 2008 post-election violence as an important first step toward establishing accountability, and as a deterrent to those who would foment ethnic animosities for political gain. However, among those indicted by the ICC are leading politicians who have sought to leverage perceptions in their communities that the cases are biased or driven by the West. Two of the defendants, who were on opposing sides in the last elections, intend to run together on a presidential ticket in the 2013 polls. This may minimize the likelihood of violence between their ethnic groups, but the possibility of conflict along other ethnic fault lines remains. Outbreaks of localized, deadly conflict in parts of the country in the past year are also of concern and may be linked to local political maneuvering in advance of the elections. Finally, spoilers, either foreign or domestic, could use small-scale terrorist attacks, which have increased in Kenya since the onset of its operations in Somalia, to disrupt the elections. The State Department maintains a travel warning for U.S. citizens given -heightened threats from terrorism" to U.S., Western, and Kenyan interests in the country.1

Renewed unrest would have implications not only for Kenya but for the broader region. The country is a top tourist destination in Africa, although terrorist threats, a high urban crime rate, and several high-profile kidnappings have damaged its tourism industry, which took years to recover from the 2007- 2008 violence. Kenya is a regional hub for transportation and finance, and its economy is among Africa's largest. Many international organizations base their continental headquarters in Nairobi, which is home to one of four major United Nations offices worldwide and serves as a base for regional humanitarian relief efforts. Kenya also hosts the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in Africa, from which U.S. agencies manage both bilateral and regional programs. The United States manages relations with the Somali government-formally recognized by the United States in January for the first time in more than 20 years-from the embassy in Nairobi, given that the U. …

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