Trump influence in Kenya will be a tall order for successor

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020 00:00 |
Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump. Photo/TASS
FormerUS President Donald Trump. Photo/TASS


The Donald Trump presidency has a mixed impact and legacy on Africa-US relations. 

Pundits decry Trump’s disdain and total disregard for Africa and its people.  

True to form, America’s 45th President did not travel to the continent. Africa plunged in Washington’s list of priorities, while its trade relations with the superpower declined significantly.

Trump’s White House blocked critical funding needed to help struggling healthcare systems combat diseases, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

Summed up, these views give legs to the theory of Trump’s ‘benign disinterest’ in Africa.

Power matrix

However, there are exceptions to Trump’s ‘‘benign neglect’ of Africa. Kenya is a case in point.

Here, the completion of the China-funded and built 578.8-kilometre Standard Gauge Railway from Mombasa through Nairobi to the lakeside town of Naivasha jolted America to counter Beijing’s growing influence in Eastern Africa’s economic powerhouse—and a pivotal state in Washington’s regional power matrix. 

Trump moved Kenya-US partnership in the fight against terrorism to a whole new level. 

Within his first 100 days in office, he reached out to President Uhuru Kenyatta on the state of security in the Horn, especially Kenya’s contribution to the African Union Mission in Somalia and its efforts to combat al-Shabaab. 

On April 14, 2017, the US announced that it would deploy “dozens” of its regular troops in Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab, the first time since 1994. 

 In August 2018, America welcomed Kenya as the newest member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. 

Trump’s America provided over Sh25 billion in boats, helicopters, airplanes, training and information to support the Kenya Defence Forces).

America also supported Kenya’s bid for the United Nations Security Council Seat for the period 2021-2022. 

But Washington has dithered on listing Al-Shabaab as a “Terrorist Organisation”. 

Africa strategy

In late 2018, the administration released its Africa strategy that promised to double trade and investment between the US and the continent.

In the wake of Uhuru’s State visit to the Washington on August 27, 2018, Kenya-US relations took a strong turn in bilateral trade and investment. 

During the visit, the Kenya-US relation was elevated to a Strategic Partnership to include an annual dialogue to advance mutual prosperity, thus affirming Kenya’s role as a pivotal State and cornerstone of peace and stability in Africa and the Indian Ocean region. 

Kenya concluded Sh85 billion in commercial deals and engagements with the public and private sectors.

American companies agreed to provide technical support to develop a nationwide digital information and communications infrastructure for the Kenyan Government.

Kenya clinched a Sh4.6 billion deal with Boeing to provide spare parts and servicing to Kenya Airways. 

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation also agreed to support food security Sh500 million loan to Twiga Foods), affordable housing (Sh5 billion loan to Acorn Housing), and renewable energy (Sh23.3 billion loan to Kipeto Energy) in Kenya. 

Power matrix

Kenya also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. 

The partners established the Trade and Investment Working Group to deepen trade relations, under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).  

Kenyatta’s follow-up visit to America on February 6, 2020 consolidated the gains made in securing Kenya’s economic and security interests.

Trump announced America’s decision to initiate negotiations with Kenya on a comprehensive, high-standard bilateral trade agreement.

According to Washington’s Trade Representative, Robert Lighthize, the agreement was to “serve as a model for additional agreements across Africa.

Kenya-US trade and investment reached an all-time high in the final years of the Trump presidency. 

The Kenya-US trade rose to $1.1 billion in 2019, up 4.9 per cent from 2018. Suffice to say that over 70 per cent ($466 million in 2018) of Kenya’s exports to the US entered under Agoa.

Kenya’s exports to America under Agoa rose by 25.8 per cent in 2018, boosting employment in the textile sector by 5.1 per cent. 

Negotiations for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) commenced in July 2020. 

Far from dividing the African consensus, when concluded, Kenya’s bilateral trade agreement with the US, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, will complement regional integration efforts within the East African Community (EAC), as well as the landmark African Continental Free Trade Area.

 The Kenya-US FTA will offer an “Agoa Plus” arrangement. Unlike Agoa which is scheduled to expire in 2025, this FTA is not time bound.

While providing more long-term predictability, the FTA creates long-term rules of commercial engagement between the two countries to drive endurable economic growth and progression.

From October 2018, the Trump administration granted Kenya Airways permission to fly passenger and cargo flights directly to the American destinations.

This has since facilitated faster movement of goods, penetration into the US market and eased logistics for importers from the US to Kenya.

It has also boosted exports to the US and helped jump-start the tourism sector. Kenya Airways’ market capitalisation has also increased.

The airline’s stock closed at Sh17.30, up from the earlier Sh15.60 after the premier flight. 

Struck a deal

During last year’s meeting between Presidents Trump and Uhuru at the White House, the two sides struck a deal to build a massive 485-kilometre highway project linking Nairobi and Mombasa to be built by the American construction giant Bechtel at an estimated cost of around $3billion.  

With the exit of Trump, the future of the Nairobi-Mombasa expressway—widely seen as a durable solution to perennial traffic snarl-ups and the promotion of trade and movement in Kenya and the neighboring countries—now hangs in the balance.

The US government has temporarily shelved the project over cost implications.

Washington wonks have poured water on the project, arguing that US zero tolerance for corruption might not be upheld, Kenyans might not get value for their money and the project risks sinking the country deeper into debt. 

Certainly, Biden will be sworn in as America’s 46th President. But the fate of deals made to deepen Kenya-US relations under Trump remain uncertain. — The writer is a former government adviser and Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute

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