Adjoa Anyimadu
Adjoa Anyimadu
Former Research Associate, Africa Programme
When the US president visits Nairobi, he will discover a country with both economic potential and serious security concerns fuelled by marginalization.
People sit next to local newspapers bearing headlines on US President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya on 17 July 2015 in Nairobi. Photo by Getty Images.People sit next to local newspapers bearing headlines on US President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya on 17 July 2015 in Nairobi. Photo by Getty Images.

President Obama’s attendance at the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi will carry great personal significance for the American leader. But for Kenya, this weekend marks a vital re-assertion that the country, dogged in recent years by large-scale terrorist attacks, International Criminal Court indictments against its leaders and the resultant negative international headlines, is safe and open for business.

The bullishness of business

The choice of Nairobi for this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit is a boon for Kenya, and reflects the world-leading business and technological development emerging from the country.  Recent innovations in mobile payments (M-Pesa), clean energy (Sanergy) and portable internet (BRCK) have been incubated in Kenya before being used globally. The summit also demonstrates the gap between the dominant view of Kenya in the mainstream international media, which has focused on security concerns, and the perspective of international business. Despite negative international publicity, many global corporations remain bullish about Kenya’s economic prospects – the high profile US and Kenyan companies on the agenda of the summit demonstrate this. Even with other concerns, GDP growth that consistently tops five per cent annually and pro-business government policies are attracting investors.

Security: A mutating threat?

Last weekend’s reopening of the Westgate shopping centre, scene of the largest al Shabaab attack in Kenya’s capital, was tied to Obama’s visit, and was intended to highlight that Kenya is secure for both consumers and international business-people. But the reality is that the country’s security situation remains deeply uncertain. After the deaths of 67 people in the Westgate attack in September 2013, improvements have been made in training of the Kenyan Defence Forces, and in intelligence-sharing between Kenya, its immediate East African neighbours and Western partners. But there are continued concerns over the shortcomings of command and control in Kenya’s security sector, and corruption within the Kenyan police. The US released a travel advisory in anticipation of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, warning Americans that a flagship meeting to be attended by their own president is itself a potential target for terrorist attack.

Additionally, the co-option and distortion of community disaffection by al Shabaab has meant that the terrorist threat has become mutable, with non-Somali Kenyans being involved in the repeated significant attacks throughout 2014 in coastal and northern Kenya, culminating this April with the murders of 148 university students in Garissa. Kenya is growing economically, but the unequal distribution of resources has exacerbated longstanding marginalization of some Muslim communities, driving internal security threats from non-Somalis. The focus on Kenya’s economy should not overshadow the headway made when President Uhuru Kenyatta hosted a regional conference on countering violent extremism in June this year. Although it received far less international fanfare, the event marked the Kenyan government’s public acknowledgement that local grievances are being seized upon by groups with global terrorist ambitions, and that community-based civil society can play a role in countering the appeal of violent extremism.

Defining the new normal

For Kenya, Obama’s trip is the most notable step in recent re-calibration of the country’s relationship with its American and European partners. The abandonment of the ICC’s case against President Kenyatta – he was accused of orchestrating ethnic mobilization and election violence in 2007 which left over 1,000 people dead – has eased interactions with the international community. At the time of Kenyatta’s election many states declared that they would only maintain ‘essential contact’ with him and Vice-President William Ruto. The turnaround in high-level diplomatic engagement has been swift, with visits this year including by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, the foreign ministers of the UK and Germany, and Italy’s prime minister.

While security collaboration will be central to the agenda when President Kenyatta meets with President Obama, improvements to trade and travel connections between the US and Kenya will also be discussed, emphasizing the normalization of Kenya’s international relations and reflecting the reality of Kenya’s position as both the region’s most promising location for business and technological innovation, and the most insecure. For Obama, and other high-level international visitors, the challenge will be to maintain these diplomatic improvements, without forgetting the governance challenges and regional inequalities that created the conditions for violence in 2007, and are fuelling the attraction of al Shabaab. Security and business are vital, but sustainable progress on either will not be possible unless Kenya’s politics keeps pace.

An emerging hegemon?

President Obama’s recent and forthcoming African engagements have been with continental heavyweights – Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited Washington earlier this week, and Obama will travel to Ethiopia after his stay in Nairobi. That Kenya is now being included with this set will do much to heal past resentment at being left out of Obama’s previous tours, and is an accurate marker of its significance for East Africa’s future prosperity and security. But hubris must not be allowed to creep in. If Kenya’s economic potential is real, and substantial, then so are its political and social challenges – notably how to ensure an equitable distribution of the benefits from its burgeoning business sector. It is incumbent on Obama not to allow the sentiment of his long-awaited arrival in Kenya to obscure the fault lines at the heart of this emerging regional hegemon. 

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