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Kenyatta Visits Trump in Reciprocal Charm Offensive

Council on Foreign Relations
Monday August 27, 2018
By John Campbell

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta arrives to inspect a guard of honor before the annual State of the Nation address at the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi, Kenya May 2, 2018. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

President Donald Trump will receive President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya in Washington, D.C. today, the second African chief of state to make a bilateral visit since becoming president in 2016. The conversation will reportedly focus on trade and investment—the reason for Kenyatta’s visit to the United States—with specific attention paid to China's increasing involvement in Kenya, and security issues with a focus on Somalia. 

The visit is an opportunity for both presidents to burnish their damaged international reputations. In 2012, Kenyatta was charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity linked to violence associated with the 2007–8 election cycle (though the charges were dropped in 2014 after alleged witness intimidation). The 2017 national elections in Kenya were “irregular,” to put forward the most favorable of interpretations; the country seemed to be on the brink of serious ethnic conflict, with plenty of blame to be shared by Kenyatta and his long-time rival, Raila Odinga.

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For his part, President Trump’s rhetoric on Africa has been disastrous, from his infamous “shithole” comments to his recent mischaracterization of land reform and white murders in South Africa. So, too, have his comments on African-Americans, to which many Africans pay attention. U.S. policy, however, has shown remarkable continuity with that of previous administrations. 

So, Rose Garden pictures and a press conference will likely boost President Kenyatta’s standing on his home continent and improve President Trump’s African image. There is media speculation that the visit will result in a closer economic relationship between the two countries. Kenya is an important trading partner of the United States, but that aspect of the bilateral relationship is not as salient as the security relationship, which is one of Washington’s most important in Africa.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is also looking for an expanded economic relationship with Kenya. She will visit Nairobi and meet with Kenyatta later this week as part of a swing around Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. According to British media, she is looking for enhanced British export possibilities in the aftermath of Brexit.

Kenyatta’s rehabilitation of himself would appear to have been a success in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, it should be noted that Kenya is heavily indebted to China, which owns more than seventy percent of its debt and is involved in many large infrastructure projects. This would seem to limit Kenya’s capacity to buy more goods and services from the United States and the United Kingdom. In fact, after his meeting with May, Kenyatta is travelling to Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which has occurred in varying forms every three years since 2000, and over which President Xi Jinping will preside. 

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