The road President Uhuru Kenyatta has travelled to become co-host alongside US President Barack Obama of the 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi on July 25-26, 2015, has been a long and elaborate one.
It has also been a feat of strategic thinking and action, and superlative diplomacy. It has been a feat of nearly superhuman patience, perseverance and grace under extreme pressure.
A year ago, when he still carried the cross of his crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, no one would have believed that President Kenyatta and President Obama would share the same stage and co-host the world to a global summit on entrepreneurship with a bias for the youth everywhere – and do it on Kenyan soil.
His political foes would have staked anything on this eventuality never happening. Even now, as the clock ticks towards the great moment when both the US and Kenyan Presidents rise to address the Summit, there are those in the opposition who are none-too-happy about it.
In their first year of power, President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto had frosty relations with the West. The US and UK and the EU nations were shocked to see the UhuRuto ticket win the Presidential race, not in spite of but despite the ICC- suspects-with-cases-to-answer tag.
President Kenyatta started his administration by keeping ambassadors waiting and delaying receiving their credentials. Envoys from Japan, Germany, France, India and Italy could barely believe what was unfolding.
And then the British issued a travel advisory that really annoyed Kenyatta because of its timing, just ahead of the high tourism season. The 2014 tourism season saw the sector brought to its knees by al Shabaab terror attacks and bandit or cattle rustling raids well away from the tourism circuit, but which kept the pot of generalised insecurity boiling.
The shock of the UhuRuto victory was all the more stunning because the embassies had been so horrified by the events of the post-election violence of 2007-08, that they simply could not imagine the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin ever coming together in any enterprise.
President Kenyatta’s first visit to Britain as head of state was on May 7, 2013, to attend an international conference on Somalia co-hosted by London and Mogadishu. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had invited the Kenyan President, took the greatest care not to be photographed with the then ICC suspect whose election victory his government did not exactly cherish.
President Obama first met President Kenyatta at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday, December 10, 2010, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Kenyan delegation arrived late and President Kenyatta was given a standing ovation by the stadium crowd when the emcee announced his arrival. Shortly thereafter, President Obama approached President Kenyatta and both men shook hands firmly.
Both statesmen were attending a sad event, but theirs was a momentous and historic encounter. The 44th President of the United States of America, aged 49, was meeting the Fourth President of Kenya, also aged 49, for the first time on African soil.
President Kenyatta still had the burden of the albatross of being a suspect with a crimes-against-humanity case to answer at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
ICC case never had a chance of taking off
But the charges never had a chance of sticking – and Kenyatta never comported himself like a guilty party. The guilty, it was long ago said, are afraid. Not Kenyatta. He remained outwardly unafraid throughout his ICC torment.
When President Obama announced he was convening the first-ever US-Africa Leadership Summit, to be held in Washington DC on August 4-6, 2014, eyes were raised in some quarters when he included President Kenyatta in the invitation. The ICC case was still on.
President Obama next met President Kenyatta on August 4, at the US-Africa Summit, at the White House, which had the great theme – “Investing in the Next Generation”.
After greeting everyone else in the room, Obama took Kenyatta aside and the two statesmen conversed privately for 40 minutes in a separate room. By the end of this conversation on the sidelines of the Summit, a meeting of minds had occurred.
State Department elements stood in the way of better US-Kenya relations for months
Impeccable insiders on both sides hold that President Obama realised during that short interval that forces in his own State Department had consistently interposed themselves as stumbling blocks in the Kenyan-US relationship. These forces were acting as agents of influence on behalf of elements of activist civil society in both Nairobi and Washington, and in the European Union capitals who had an axe to grind with the Jubilee administration, and undeclared political agenda.
President Kenyatta had known this for months, mostly through his own State Department insiders and network and Intelligence service.
As long ago as Kenya’s 2013 general election campaign, two top officials of the State Department, one of them retired the other still active but now (2015) no longer at State, had clashed openly over Kenyatta and William Ruto’s (who also had an ICC case) candidature.
Ambassador Jendayi Frazer publicly rebuked her successor in the State Department’s top Africa post, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, when the latter made intrusive remarks on the Kenyan Presidential campaign.
Carson had issued a statement on the UhuRuto ticket, warning Kenyan voters that voting for the ICC suspects would be a controversial choice. Ambassador Carson hissed, “Choices have consequences”.
Ambassador Frazer responded in a statement, “I am troubled by Johnnie Carson’s statement that is essentially meddling in Kenya’s election”.
Frazer served as the Bush administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 2005 to 2009.
Frazer went on: “It is very reckless and irresponsible, given that the election is very close, for us to try to intervene in Kenya’s election decision”.
And she also said: “We should not be threatening Kenyans about their choice by pointing to an ICC case that is not proven. I think the ICC case against Uhuru Kenyatta is a weak one based on hearsay.”
In the end, Frazer was proven absolutely right and Carson very wrong and wrongheaded. President Kenyatta’s case at The Hague was withdrawn by Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in early December 2014, for lack of evidence.
Although he was no longer at the State Department when President Obama and President Kenyatta had their eye-opening 40 minutes at the US-Africa Summit, Ambassador Carson’s legacy was clearly mostly in place at State.
However, it was blown away in little more than half-an-hour of the two Presidents getting into their first-ever tête-à-tête.
The turning point: President Kenyatta at first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit
What happened next after the State Department cobwebs that had for so long interfered with a better Nairobi-Washington relationship set President Kenyatta well and truly on the road to becoming President Obama’s co-host of the GES 2015.
Among other inspiring remarks, President Obama launched the US-Africa Summit with this vaulting observation: “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.”
The Summit was the largest event a US President has held with African statesmen. It aimed at building on President Obama’s trip to Africa the previous year, when he was widely perceived to have snubbed his father’s homeland Kenya.
The Washington Summit emphasised trade and investment in Africa and the Obama administration’s commitment to the continent’s security, democratic advancement and its young people, one of the biggest youth bulges in history.
A whirlwind week in Washington and Dallas
The Summit lasted three days but President Kenyatta and his high-powered delegation were in the US for another full week. Afterwards he returned home via a special IGAD summit on the South Sudan crisis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The seven days in America after the Washington Summit were a time of ferocious hard work, networking and signing on to good deals in several sectors. The entire delegation was busy, all the time, culminating in a most interesting detour to Dallas, Texas, where he was hosted by George W and was photographed wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat and leather boots.
The US-Africa Summit was about this continent being heard as a continent, or as, in President Obama’s ringing words, a partnership that must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.
President Kenyatta’s after-Summit stay in the US was a whirlwind tour of business-to-business engagements in which the delegation ensured that a number of key American investors understood the Jubilee government’s role as a key facilitator of the private sector, the Kenyan economy’s engine of growth.
Throughout, the President underscored and promoted Kenya’s stance of partnership and opportunity on the basis of mutual respect and the objective of win-win outcomes.
The President and the delegation met with US government officials, private sector players, civil society and media. These were candid encounters and transactions, at which President Kenyatta frankly acknowledged Kenya’s challenges and highlighted the vast opportunities this nation offers to the discerning US investor.
In Washington and Dallas, the President and his delegation met groups of US businesspeople, government officials, leading think tanks and Kenyans in the Diaspora.
A highlight of this tour was the fact that in three days President Kenyatta met four American Presidents – Obama and his two immediate predecessors George W Bush and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who left office as long ago as 1980.
These were propitious and momentous encounters, especially considering the fact that all four have a great interest in Africa. Obama’s father was from Kenya. The President’s major Africa focus is lighting up communities.
President Bush gave Africa the Pepfar initiative and rolled back the advance of HIV-Aids, saving millions of lives.
President Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a lasting legacy of epic proportions throughout the continent.
Carter’s The Carter Centre has been a multiparty elections observer and enabler for decades, including in Kenya.
Kenya has unfortunately underutilised the Clinton legacy. But during that one week in Washington and Dallas, Kenya, for the first time, made clear plans to significantly improve its benefits from the programme. The country is now better prepared to reap the full benefits of AGOA.
Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed was part of the Africa Ministerial Team at the Wahington Summit that led negotiations for the extension of the AGOA programme and advocated for at least 15 years’ extension to promote investments in the textile sector for the long term. The Jubilee government has identified the textile sector as a priority sector for the current financial year. President Obama was optimistic that the extension will be approved by Congress.
Mohamed also won pledges from global players GAP and Wal-Mart, who were optimistic to follow through their supply chain investments in Kenya. This means that, under this country’s Global Supply Chain Integration for the Textile and Apparels Sector, increased orders for apparels and manufactures from Kenya are expected in the coming months.
None of these interactions could have taken place in Jubilee’s first year in office. Kenya’s relations with the West appeared to be well and truly jinxed. When President Kenyatta and his delegation were all set to go on his first United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, the al Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall took place and the President cancelled the trip.
He would have a triumphant first UNGA a year later, complete with First Lady Margaret at his side, and with her own schedule of UN events and speaking engagements. Margaret had been invited to UNGA by secretary general Ban Ki-moon in person, at State House, Nairobi, on account of her Beyond Zero Campaign that focuses on maternal health.
When Uhuru co-hosts the GES with Obama on July 25, he will have come full circle in reclaiming his international credentials.