By ARLETTE SAENZ and CONOR FINNEGAN
Terror Alert from Al-Shabaab
The group has conducted two big attacks in recent years — at the Garissa University in eastern Kenya earlier this year and at the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which re-opened last weekend for the first time since the 2013 attack. It has also carried out a string of kidnappings, car bombings and shootings throughout the country.
Kenya has become a target because it sent troops to Somalia alongside the African Union force fighting to exterminate al-Shabaab. Both Ethiopia and Kenya have become important U.S. allies in the fight against terrorists, and the White House says counterterror strategy will be an important topic during the president’s trip.
There are also general security concerns around events the president will attend. One week before the scheduled visit, the State Department alerted U.S. citizens that large public events like the Global Entrepreneurship Summit where the president will speak may be a “target for terrorists.”
Undemocratic Heads of State?
The administration has touted both Kenya and Ethiopia as important partners, but Obama is meeting with two heads of state with questionable records, at best.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted on crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for fomenting and funding violence after the candidate he supported lost the presidential election in 2007, a time of civil unrest and widespread ethnic violence. The charges have since been withdrawn, but Kenyatta faces allegations of corruption and suppressing freedom of the press.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and his party won 100 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections this spring, raising concerns in the United States about their openness and fairness. The dominant ruling party has tried to shut down dissent by allegedly jailing and even torturing political opponents, protesters and journalists.
The president’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters Wednesday that the president would address these issues. “We raise them directly and clearly, both in public and in private,” she said. “And we will do that as we always do when we visit Kenya and Ethiopia.”
Restricted Press Freedom
In both Kenya and Ethiopia, journalists do not enjoy the same freedom as reporters in the United States, and some media rights groups are urging Obama to push both governments to lift restrictions on the press.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report last week chronicling how the Kenyan government and large media corporations have curtailed a free press.
“Kenyan reporters, editors and publishers are exposed to threats of being hurt, prosecuted, imprisoned or simply having crucial advertising withdrawn,” the report says. “Media are manipulated by dominant corporations, and news outlets are subject to the whims of their politician-owners or publishers who want to cozy up to power.”
Before the trip, Rice said the administration has been vocal about the need for a free press in the two countries, particularly in Ethiopia, saying it has “a long way to go.”
“Obviously, in Ethiopia in particular, we have consistently expressed concern about the treatment of journalists, among other issues. We noted that recently, the Ethiopian government did release five journalists, which is a welcome step, but they have a long way to go. And I think we have been very clear in our dialogue with them on this, and other issues related to democracy and governance that we believe they can and should do more and better.
Personal Duty vs. Presidential Responsibility
Unlike his 2006 trip to Kenya, the president will not visit Kogelo, the village where his father, Barack Obama Sr., was born and buried. The White House cited time and logistical concerns that are keeping the president from touring the village. The lack of a visit from the president will likely disappoint the villagers hoping he would make the trek to area where his family is from.
Instead, Obama will spend his time in Nairobi in full presidential mode: meeting with President Kenyatta and delivering remarks at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. But the president does have plans to meet privately with some of his family members while in Nairobi, and they may accompany him to some of his official obligations.
“I’ll be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president because I can actually get outside of a hotel room or a conference center,” the president in a news conference White House earlier this month.
“And just the logistics of visiting a place are always tough as president, but it’s obviously symbolically important.”
Gay Rights in Africa
As the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, gay rights are an important part of Obama’s legacy. But in many countries around the world, same-sex relations are illegal and often dangerous.
That’s the case in Ethiopia and Kenya, where political and religious leaders have warned Obama not to address the issue. Protesters have even taken to the streets of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to demonstrate against gay rights and admonish the president for his support of them.
Will the president listen? In an interview with the BBC, Obama indicated he’s willing to discuss the sensitive subject while in Kenya as he did during a trip to Senegal in 2013.
“In a press conference, I was very blunt about my belief that everybody deserves fair treatment, equal treatment in the eyes of the law and the state,” the president said of his trip to Senegal. “And that includes gays, lesbians, transgender persons.”
“I am not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, on the basis of religion, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. And I think that this is actually part and parcel of the agenda that’s also going to be front and center, and that is how are we treating women and girls,” he added.
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