1 February 2014

Africa: Obama Summons Africa - Including Uhuru

When the news broke a fortnight ago, it caused a frisson of excitement among President Uhuru Kenyatta's supporters. It first came out to the effect that American President Barack Obama had invited President Kenyatta to the White House.

But it soon emerged that the invite was also sent out to 46 other African presidents and is timed for August 5-6, 2014.

The invitation was also interesting in who was deliberately left out, including, astonishingly, Egypt, and, predictably, presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al Bashir of North Sudan.

The occasion is the US/Africa Leaders' Summit. The invitation to the Kenyan leader was instantly interpreted as being a decisive turn for the better in relations between the Kenyatta and Obama administrations' relations.

This is because it comes at a time when Kenyatta still has a case ongoing at the International Criminal Court at The Hague on crimes against humanity charges arising from the post-election violence of December 2007 and January 2008.

The case is looking increasingly legless, with ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia having confessed in December that she no longer has her key witnesses against Kenyatta and asked for three months to rebuild her case against him.

Deputy President William Ruto is also at The Hague on not dissimilar charges arising from the same post-election violence crisis in a case that has been ongoing since May 2013.

The ICC cases were cited as the main reason Obama avoided visiting Kenya, home of his father, on his African tour of June 2013 (when he visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania), camping in neighbouring Tanzania for three days, the longest an incumbent US President has spent in eastern Africa since President Roosevelt's 1903 safari in Kenya, more than a century ago.

The list of those invited by Obama was reported to exclude the leaders of North Sudan, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau.

President Obama's former chief diplomat for Africa, Dr Johnnie Carson, an old Africa hand at the State Department who first came to Tanzania in the mid-1960s, when President Kenyatta was barely five years old and before Deputy President Ruto was born, issued a warning to the Kenyan electorate against electing ICC indictees of crimes against humanity, saying "choices have consequences".

It is a mark of the deterioration of US-Kenya relations in recent years, particularly since December 15, 2010, when the then ICC Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, first fingered Kenyatta and Ruto as being among five prominent Kenyans and one radio broadcaster (Joshua arap Sang) who bore "the greatest responsibility" for the post-election violence, that the President will be making his first visit to Washington while in office as part of such a large group of invitees.

His predecessor, President Mwai Kibaki, had the distinct honour of enjoying the first State visit to the White House by the leader of an African country during the presidency of Obama predecessor George W. Bush in 2003. The outing to Washington was also President Kibaki's first trip abroad since his election the previous year.

African leaders have previously trooped en masse to Tokyo and Beijing. The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said a week is a long time in politics.

Eight months' notice of a selective US/Africa Summit is a very long time indeed and the list of 47 could fall to a lower number between now and then.

Obama will be hosting the leaders of the region of the world with the youngest population ever. With a population of more than a billion, Africa has a youth bulge like none other in human history in one contiguous region.

Among many other things, this also means Africa is a continent of burgeoning great expectations and unimaginably precipitous prospects for failure.

Libya, Egypt, Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia are countries convulsing with conflict. Massacres, population displacements and humanitarian crises are the signature events in these conflict regions and war zones and children, women and the aged are the most vulnerable victims. The youth bulge in these countries has become militarized, in some cases to the extent of deploying child soldiers.


What's more, a most interesting and polarising issue will most likely feature prominently in Washington in August: Africa is the last bastion of homophobia and Obama is the first US President to embed a pro-gay message in his Inaugural Address (the Second, on January 21, 2013).

Obama made not one but two references to gay rights in that speech, one perhaps too subtle for most African presidents and their handlers whom he will host in August, the other one explicit.

First he said, "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall".

The reference to Seneca Falls was to a long forgotten, even among most Americans, historic event in July 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, on the subject of women's rights. The reference to Selma was to the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr Martin Luther King in March 1965, starting with the violent incident known as "Bloody Sunday".

The reference to Stonewall was to the series of demonstrations and riots by members of the gay community in June and July 1969, following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich, New York.

And then Obama declared, to great applause: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law - for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well".

Sparks are bound to fly in Washington in August if Obama chooses to revisit the subject, as he almost certainly will, in front of Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and Uganda's Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, among others.

Jonathan signed into law one of the most draconian anti-homosexual Bills on the planet earlier this month while Museveni stayed his hand, returning an anti-gay Bill to his parliament with annotations that included the assertions that gay men suffer an aberration and lesbians are sexually starved, in heterosexual terms.

A commentator on BBC World Service FM radio made the chilling observation that "corrective rape" of lesbians by heterosexual men is a frequent occurrence in Uganda.

Perhaps even more blood-curdling were Museveni's remarks, addressed to his parliamentarians, asking "should we kill them [homosexuals] or should we contain them?" In Obama's America, Museveni's "options" are beyond the pale.

American analyst John Campbell, in a piece entitled "Nigerians Circle the Wagons against the West on Anti-Gay Law", carried on platforms as diverse as The Christian Science Monitor newspaper and a blog of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), observed that the Nigerian legislation "criminalizes virtually all aspects of gay life, not just gay marriage.

There has been support from spokesmen for the Christian Association of Nigeria (the principal Christian umbrella group), the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the sultan of Sokoto (the premier Muslim traditional ruler), and Jama'atu Nasril Islam, perhaps the most important Islamic group with a national membership, as well as an outpouring of support from much of the population.

"Some Nigerians appear to be rediscovering a sense of nationalism. As one said to CAJ News Africa, 'for the first time in life, I am so happy to be a Nigerian!' Others expressed pride that Christians, Muslims, and adherents to traditional religion are united in their opposition to homosexuality".


Despite Obama's explicit snubbing of Kenyatta in June, he had occasion to call the Kenyan President at least twice last year - after the fire at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in August and during the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in late September. The two also met and shook hands in December during funeral rites for Nelson Mandela.

Obama's inclusion of Kenyatta in his US/Africa Summit will be read as one of the early signs that the ICC case is indeed heading nowhere.

The American's exclusion of al Bashir is being interpreted as a mark of disapproval of the Sudanese strongman's refusal to cooperate with the ICC, which has an international arrest warrant out for him on genocide and crimes against humanity charges.

Among the considerations that have gone into a direct engagement with Kenyatta by Washington must be the cluster of crises in Central Africa where the CAR is on fire, as are parts of DRC and South Sudan.

Kenya's hub-of-the region status stretches all the way to the Great Lakes, eastern and Horn of Africa regions and has geopolitical significances that include a long and symbiotic relationship with the US, across many American presidential administrations.

In making the US-America announcement, the White House observed it "will build on the progress made since the President's trip to Africa last summer, advance the administration's focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America's commitment to Africa's security, its democratic development, and its people".

On his Africa tour last year, Obama unveiled a series of multiple-billion-dollar agricultural, power generation and development initiatives.

Africa's senior-most incumbent elder statesman (and Homophobe-in-Chief), Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, is not invited to Washington, and the Obama administration also strongly disapproves of governance factors in Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau.

America's closest African ally Egypt, the biggest recipient of US aid, including a minimum $1.5 billion in military assistance yearly, is not invited either.

US officials indicated that the reason Egypt has been lumped together with pariah states North Sudan and Zimbabwe is principally its current suspension from the African Union (AU), following the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelbati expressed great surprise at both the exclusion and the reason adduced, pointing out that the US Summit is not an AU event.

Obama first mooted the idea of the US- Africa Summit in Cape Town in June 2013, in a move seen by analysts as an attempt to counter China's growing influence in an Africa that is finally showing signs of booming times in the near future.

Obama's tour of Africa follows a tour by Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier in 2013. Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the first tour of Africa by a Japanese leader in almost a decade.

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