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New chapter in Kenya-US relations in the offing

By Adhere Cavince | December 2nd 2020

US President-Elect Joe Biden reached out to President Uhuru Kenyatta in a phone call that signals prospects for stronger ties between Nairobi and Washington. In the call, the two leaders addressed issues of mutual interest cutting across regional security, climate change and the plight of refugees.

In reaching out to an African leader even before formally taking office, Biden is revising the US international engagement script, authored by the outgoing President Donald Trump. The last four years have been defined by a transactional policy stance by Washington towards Africa in which isolationism, foul language and tied aid became the norm.

In Biden, that could change with the President-Elect already indicating that America is inching back to its global leadership role it played pre-Trump. All the issues discussed with Uhuru are both transnational and requires both concerted and innovative approaches to ameliorate.

Kenya is a key voice in the global response to climate change and hosts the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, also known as UN-Habitat. There were directed efforts by the US to modernise Kenya’s governance framework to better manage the impacts of climate change yet these have since slackened. In the process, Kenya has seen droughts and floods that have both decimated lives and livelihoods. The reinvigoration of cooperative efforts on this front is welcome.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, Kenya was home to some 508,000 refugees in 2019; a clear indication of the volatility of the region and the increasing burden placed on the country. With more conflict erupting in neighbouring countries in the backdrop of the Covid-19 global health pandemic, the fate of refugees is increasingly complicated, requiring international efforts to quell conflicts from the source. Kenya is a veritable peacemaker and can drive regional approaches on peace and security.

Beyond the call taglines, there remains real potential if only the US can shift its engagement with Kenya and the rest of Africa from aid to more of trade and industrial cooperation. America should leverage its competitive advantage to buoy its relations with Nairobi and create mutual and lasting economic impacts for citizens of both countries.

At the moment, Kenya and the US are engaged in negotiations towards actualizing a Free Trade Agreement. There is palpable concern about how the Biden administration would continue with the talks started by President Trump. It would be great to see the two countries create a trade deal that will not jeopardize Kenya’s regional and continental competitiveness.

The trade deal has the potential to revolutionise entrepreneurial capacity of East Africa’s largest economy but analysts have also raised concerns about possible dumping provisions that could flood Kenyan market with US goods, some of which are already outlawed like plastics.

The call between the two leaders certainly serves as an indication of goodwill on the part of the US to expand and deepen its engagements with Kenya and Africa. In about 50 days, when the levers of power finally shift to Biden, many across the continent would be eager to see actual policies that would give due consideration to the continent as a strategic partner in the realization of US national interests.      

-Mr Adhere comments on topical issues @Cavinceworld

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