Kenya and the United States, led by Uhuru Kenyatta and Donald Trump, have experienced mutual attraction and repulsion. They share such national characteristics as having fought the British to gain independence and initially relying on George Washington and Jomo Kenyatta as father figures. Their citizens occasionally exhibit pride that borders on arrogance.
American foreign policy arrogance, deigning to tell other countries how to conduct their affairs, leads to resentment. The display of inherent American racism when dealing with Africans is at times crude, and Kenya has been on the receiving end of that crudity. Trump’s description of Africa as 'shithole countries' and the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was in Nairobi trying to warn Africans against the Chinese, appeared like Trump's way of showing disdain.
On the other hand, Kenya has shown it is not beholden to, or at the beck and call of, imperial powers; that it can decide what its interests are and that it is free to befriend any country without asking for Euro permission. This streak of independent thinking and decision making has angered representatives of master states who wanted Kenya to adopt 'civilised relations', which meant being subservient to Euro dictates. To contain Kenya, they seemingly adopted aspects of what Naomi Klein would term Shock Doctrine.
However, Uhuru’s ability to project himself as a defender of Pan-Africanist interests made him a critical player in the current global power re-alignment that even Trump cannot ignore. Trump invited Uhuru to try to find points of convergence that Kenya and the US can advance.
Uhuru will not be the first Kenyan president at the White House - only Jomo Kenyatta failed to visit the United States because he did not like flying. His successors, particularly Uhuru, have compensated for that deficit.
Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki were State guests at the White House, usually at critical times in Kenyan-US relations. Jimmy Carter, looking for bases or facilities in eastern Africa, hosted Moi at the White House in 1980, with jazz musician Eubie Blake entertaining. Moi had also accepted Carter’s call for African countries to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
George HW Bush received Kibaki in 2003 following the World Trade Organisation events at Cancun, Mexico, where Kenya’s former Minister for Trade, Mukhisa Kituyi, had virtually led the Third World in rejecting trade dictations. And now, as China appears to best the US in relating to African states, and Uhuru being pivotal to the position of African states, Trump receives Uhuru.
Uhuru and Trump won their respective presidencies despite the obstacles placed before them. Uhuru survived Euro “choices have consequences” logic to win the presidency three times in five years while Trump initially appeared like a spoiler in the Republican party and exploited the American electoral system that was deliberately designed to be anti-democratic and to represent collective elite interests.
He upset the American establishment by winning in the electoral college while losing the popular vote. He did it by declaring he was going to “make America great again” thereby implying that the US had stopped being great. He blamed Barack Obama and foreigners for the loss of American greatness.
Although it was not the first time that a candidate with fewer popular votes was winning, the anger intensity from the American establishment, blaming Russians for Trump's victory, was unusually high.
Both men know how to win in rough political terrain and deal with serious domestic forces. Trump would like to improve the American image in Africa and probably catch up with the Chinese in terms of visible presence.
If only he can convince Africans to reduce their dealings with China and to trust Euro powers to be appropriate “protectors” of African interests against the supposedly predatory Chinese. On his part, Uhuru would want condition-less American investments, increased collaboration in fighting terrorism at the regional level, and the opening of American markets for Kenyan goods and services.
Prof Munene teaches history and international relations at USIU; [email protected]