Whatever decision the White House makes in selecting the countries included on a presidential visit to Africa, it is bound to draw critical scrutiny. On July 24, President Obama departs for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. Two reasons for these two countries seem immediately clear. An important focus of the trip will be the African Union (AU), which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held this year in Nairobi, Kenya. The AU is the lodestar of the “African solutions to African problems” policy, while the Entrepreneurship Summit demonstrates a focus on economic development. Both are policy goals keenly supported by the United States. However, there is also a symbolic significance to this decision. Many in Africa have questioned why President Obama, with a Kenyan father, has not yet visited Nairobi during his presidency. This absence has contributed to disappointment in Africa that the Obama presidency has not been particularly African in its focus.
There is also a bilateral dimension to the trip. Both countries are important strategic partners of the United States. Both have recently experienced periods of rapid economic growth. Neither is a model of good governance, though Kenya’s new constitution is a step in the right direction. Both also have blemished human rights records and a history of problematic elections.
Following Nigeria and South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya are in the second tier of African states in terms of strategic importance to the United States. Both have been on the frontlines of the struggle against terrorism and have cooperated closely with the United States on a host of issues. Both, however, appear to be on a downward trajectory with respect to human rights.
In Kenya, police and other security services commit human rights violations largely with impunity. Their methods with respect to certain minorities, such as Somalis who are Kenyan citizens, and also foreign Somalis in refugee camps, are often abusive and likely generate support for jihadist terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab. Of late, the government has sought legislation that would restrict the media and civil society that is rightly critical of the administration. Finally, Kenya has an abysmal record with respect to cooperation with the International Criminal Court, to which it has formal treaty obligations. In Ethiopia meanwhile, recent elections were a sham, and the ruling party is increasingly repressive. There are growing restrictions on the media and civil society there as well. New legislation restricts freedom of speech and association, ostensibly as anti-terrorism measures. Moreover, the Ethiopian security services already have a history of war crimes.
In Kenya and Ethiopia, the Obama administration must balance U.S. strategic interests with human rights concerns. In a period of resurgent terrorism, security issues are likely to be at the forefront. One can only hope that President Obama’s agenda will also include human rights.