As President Barack Obama spent the weekend in Kenya—from where he departed on Sunday after making a rousing and personal speech about his personal and ancestral ties to the Africa country—many news outlets were marking the occasion by noting it as his first-ever trip as commander-in-chief to the home country of his father and extended family.
"I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya – and of course I’m the first Kenyan American to be president of the United States," Obama said during the speech to a packed stadium in Nairobi, which was repeatedly interupted with loud rounds of applause.
However, given that in order to prepare for the presidential visit it was necessary for Kenyan military and police forces to conduct the "biggest ever security operation" in the nation's history, some observers took the opportunity to make more critical observations about how Obama's foreign policy choices in the region have impacted local people and undermined stability during the course of his presidency.
Remarking on the overwhelming military presence in the capital of Nairobi, Abdullahi Halakhe, a regional security analyst, told Agence France-Presse ahead of Obama's arrival that "the level of security [was] suffocating,"
Aboyami Azikiwe, who runs the Pan African News Wire, took the opportunity of the presidential visit to explain that its implications go far beyond the personal and should compel people to ask important questions about the U.S. role in Africa.
"U.S. policy toward east Africa has not been a rational policy," explained Azikiwe. Though often an ignored part of the geopolitical conversation in the United States, Obama's policies in Africa, despite his heritage, have done little to benefit either the African people or most people in the United States. Under Obama's leadership, argues Azikiwe, the U.S. has "stressed military and counter-terrorism, not economic development and the U.S. government has not shown serious interest in trade with Africa on an equitable basis."
When it comes to military operations, he continued, "The U.S. government has backed both Kenya and Ethiopia intervening in Somalia with predictably terrible results. Much of U.S. policy in the region is built around AFRICOM [United States Africa Command] which was started in the Bush administration and Obama has continued to back."
As the Los Angeles Times reported just ahead of Obama's arrival on Friday, recent weeks have seen a dramatic uptick of U.S. airstrikes against alleged Al Shabab militants in Somalia. However, as many critics have noted, drone strikes and other forms of U.S. military intervention have long acted as destabilizing factors across Africa and elsewhere – not the promised antidote to Islamic extremism, chronic violence and poverty, or political fractures.
According to the LA Times:
The U.S. cast the initial airstrike a week ago as a defensive maneuver to stop Shabab fighters who were moving to attack a military base being used by pro-government soldiers. Kenyan forces followed up the U.S. attacks with an artillery barrage that killed more than 50 fighters.
But the drone attacks have continued, officials said, a rare instance in which American firepower has been used to directly support ground skirmishes against the militants responsible for a wave of bombings and suicide attacks in East Africa.
The U.S. has provided intelligence, training and other logistical support to the Somali army and to African Union troops based there for years. Until now, however, the U.S. confined its role to targeted drone strikes and special operations raids against Shabab leadership.
It’s a change in how we’re providing support,” said a U.S. military official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “Up until now, we’ve focused strikes on high-value targets. These strikes were launched to defend forces on the ground.”
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Sadia Ali Aden, a human rights advocate and freelance writer, remarked on Obama's visit by highlighting the instability that the joint military campaign by Kenya, Ethiopia, and the United States against al Shabab in Somalia is having on the region.
"U.S. policy toward the entire region has been ineffective, if not dysfunctional," Aden said. "Partnership with Ethiopia and Kenya on counter-terrorism causes the U.S. to turn a blind eye on certain human rights violations in both countries."
As investigative journalist Nick Turse documents extensively in his recent book—Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa—the Obama administration's military operations on the continent are far more extensive than the Pentagon would like to acknowledge publicly. Moreover, the increasing footprint of the US military in countries like Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti—justified as part of its global "anti-terrorism" campaign—is likely resulting in more instability, not less.
"In the wake of 9/11, even before AFRICOM was created, the U.S. began ramping up operations across the continent in an effort to bolster the counterterror capabilities of allies and insulate Africa from transnational terror groups, namely globe-trotting Islamic extremists," writes Turse in the book. "The continent, in other words, was seen as something of a clean slate for experiments in terror prevention."
Even more troubling, as Turse concludes elsewhere, is that quiet expansion and shadowy use of U.S. military forces in various countries lead him to believe that "the U.S. military is digging in for the long haul in Africa." This, he says, despite AFRICOM proving repeatedly that it has not "the slightest idea how to tip the scales in its own favor" when it comes to defeating militant groups like Al Qaeda, al Shabab, or Boko Haram.
And Azikiwe put it this way: "AFRICOM is ostensibly designed to enhance national security for African states, but the opposite has happened."
Writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, Francis Njubi Nesbitt, a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University, hoped that Obama would use his trip to Kenya and Ethiopia as an opportunity to chart a new course for U.S. relations with the continent:
Kenya, for instance, is the home of the Greenbelt Movement founded by the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Members are encouraged to replace trees they use for firewood and other domestic needs. Since 1977, the movement has planted over 51 million trees to replace forest cover in Kenya. Greenbelt is an excellent example of a grassroots indigenous movement that mobilizes women’s groups to empower women and girls, promote democracy, and build sustainable lifestyles. The United States could back these efforts by seeking creative financing involving innovative ideas such as carbon exchanges, renewable energy certificates, and other inventive solutions.
The United States could lead the way in crafting international regulations that curb the awful land grabs that are destroying the lives of millions of indigenous people in Ethiopia and other African countries. In Ethiopia, for instance, indigenous people are losing their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, to multinational agribusiness corporations. It is critical that the international community put pressure on governments to protect the rights of indigenous people. Unfortunately, Obama’s agriculture initiatives continue to emphasize the profit motive at the expense of the environment and the interests of indigenous people.
Increasing U.S. engagement with the burgeoning peace movements on the continent would be commendable. Advocates for peace have long contended that Africa’s myriad conflicts cannot be resolved by military means. Only a political solution that deals with root causes can facilitate dialogue and set the stage for meaningful conflict management. In the case of Somalia, for instance, U.S.-backed government forces and African Union peacekeepers have degraded al-Shabaab but failed to lay the groundwork for the transition to democracy and state-building that are critical for long-term stability.
In his speech on Sunday, Obama stated, "Every country has traditions that are unique. Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future."
Referring to Kenya's poor record when it comes to treatment of women and political corruption (though the country's criminalization of homosexuality was noticeably absent from the speech), the remarks were widely reported as an important and courageous statement by the president.
However, and despite being offered as wisdom to the many proud Kenyans in the large crowd at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi who applauded the U.S. president as he spoke, critics of Obama's policies in Africa and elsewhere may consider it possible that the son born to a Kenyan father—who rose from humble beginnings to become the first black president of the United States—could still afford to follow some of that guidance on behalf of the nation he was elected to lead not once, but twice.