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US-Kenya: Biden and Kenyatta talk trade, Covid and Ethiopia

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington D.C.
Posted on Friday, 15 October 2021 10:22

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

US President Joe Biden greeted his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta in his first White House meeting with an African leader determined to usher in what he called “a new era of US cooperation with the African continent based on principles of mutual respect and equality.” 

For the US president, the meeting was a chance to create goodwill and court a key strategic ally in the Horn of Africa. The US notably looks to Kenya to help fight the Al Shabab militant group and urge the warring parties in Tigray to end a conflict that is destabilizing the fragile region.

The meeting “demonstrates a new era of US partnership with Africa that is based on principles of mutual respect and equity, as laid out by President Biden in his address to the African Union summit,” a senior White House official told reporters ahead of the meeting.

“Why Kenya? Well, Kenya is a strong bilateral partner and a leader on regional and global issues,” the official said, adding that other topics of discussion include “defending democracy and human rights, strengthening financial transparency, accelerating economic growth and tackling climate change.”

As for Kenyatta, the meeting is a diplomatic coup as Kenya chairs the United Nations Security Council this month after assuming a two-year stint on the council in January. It is a chance to press the Biden administration on free trade talks launched under President Donald Trump but that has moved slowly as the Biden team figures out its Africa trade policy.

The fight against Covid-19 is also a top priority, with Biden using the meeting to announce that the US government will be donating 17 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union to “help AU countries build vaccination programs and get shots into arms.”

Awkward timing

Kenyatta’s visit hasn’t been without controversy, however. Recent revelations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that Kenyatta and his family have stashed away $30 million in offshore accounts cast a bit of a cloud over the Kenyan leader’s meeting with the US president.

Much of the US media coverage of the meeting has focused on endemic Kenyan corruption and the optics of hosting Kenyatta at the White House. Meanwhile, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement welcoming applauding Biden’s “long overdue” first White House meeting with an African leader but raising several concerns including “deep government corruption, ongoing incidents of intercommunal violence in several parts of the country, and increasing debt to China.”

Kenyatta, however, parried attacks by publicly welcoming the scrutiny. His office went so far as to praise the ICIJ investigation, saying it would “go a long way in enhancing the financial transparency and openness that we require in Kenya and around the globe.”

The senior administration official said the US government had “taken note” of that statement and would hold Kenyatta to his word. But the White House also made it clear that President Biden’s stated commitment to global transparency wouldn’t stand in the way of deepening the bilateral relationship.

President Biden’s “view on this has been quite clear, and I don’t think he will hold back” in his meeting with Kenyatta, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. “But I would remind you: We have a range of interests in working with Kenya and working with them on issues in Africa, in the region, and that will be the primary focus of the meeting.”

In addition to his role as an elder statesman who carries some sway with the Ethiopian government, the US is also looking for Kenyatta to be a voice of reason in next year’s general election to help avoid a repeat of past electoral violence.

“Even though Kenyatta’s not running again,” the senior administration official said, “[we hope he will] be that voice as the outgoing president to encourage both parties who are running and the various ethnic groups in Kenya to peaceably demonstrate their right to vote and to elect their next leader on lines that are more based on policy and platform than ethnic division.”

All eyes on trade

While the White House is largely focused on national security issues, Kenya and the US business community hope the meeting will encourage Biden to take a leadership role in US trade policy for the region.

“I think [the bilateral meeting] is a positive, symbolic first step and also one of real substance and meaning,” says Scott Eisner, the president of the US-Africa Business Center at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

“One of the things the chamber has been advocating strongly since [Biden] came into office is that, if we’re going to have an Africa policy, it really needs to be led by the president of the United States,” Eisner says. “Just as we see presidents and prime ministers from around the world engage directly with African leaders, we can’t rely solely on the departments of State and Commerce to do that – it has to be presidential-led if we’re going to be serious about new markets for American companies.”

The chamber is squarely behind a Free Trade Agreement with Kenya, which could serve as a blueprint for US engagement with the African Continental Free Trade Area as the Office of the US Trade Representative indicates that it’s ready to move “beyond” the trade preferences of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in favour of reciprocal agreements.

A bilateral trade deal with Kenya has bipartisan support in Congress, with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) leading six other Republican senators on an Aug. 20 letter to United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai urging her to prioritize a US-Kenya FTA. And it’s a priority for the Kenyan government, which hired a pair of veterans of the Bill Clinton White House this spring for $600,000 to lobby on bilateral relations, including trade.

The Biden administration however is still developing its trade policy even as it gets ready to host a US-Africa trade ministerial in Washington next week. Asked by The Africa Report if a Kenya FTA was still a priority, a senior administration official was non-committal and brought up the Build Back Better World (B3W) infrastructure initiative launched at the G7 summit in June to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“We are committed … to support Kenya’s economic growth, [and] there’s a range of ways to do that,” the senior administration official said. “An FTA in one example, but another element is through B3W. And on a broader scale we’re thinking through how we approach foreign trade, not just with Kenya, balancing that with our domestic economic concerns.”

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