Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya. To read more of Patrick’s opinion pieces, visit his blog, Gathara’s World, or follow him on Twitter (@gathara).
Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and host of “The Daily Show,” a popular late-night news satire and talk show in the United States, once described Donald Trump as America’s first African president. In fact, Americans could do worse than look to the continent in general, and Kenya in particular, for a preview of what life under a Trump administration would be like.
President-elect Trump and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have much in common. Both are fabulously wealthy, the children of privilege with questionable success in business, and both have been accused of fanning ethnic and racial hatred. Both have risen to head their respective countries in the most unlikely of circumstances and in the face of global opprobrium. Many across the world eschewed Trump’s xenophobia and reckless approach to international affairs; Kenyatta faced similar opposition to his candidacy three years ago. This was a consequence of his – -and his running mate’s — indictment at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in relation to Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, in which more than 1,000 people died.
Trump and Kenyatta even have similar ideas about how countries should be governed.
Take their shared suspicion of and contempt for the media. Where Trump has called journalists “scum,” “illegitimate” and “horrible people” and declared his aim to make it easier to sue them, Kenyatta regularly derides newspapers as only good for wrapping meat, and his administration has introduced laws meant to stifle independent reporting. It has arrested and beaten journalists who persist in asking uncomfortable questions, and, leveraging its advertising and regulatory muscle, leaned on media houses to fire journalists or pull their stories. Just recently, in response to a spate of corruption stories, Kenyatta declared that journalists should be required to prove any allegation of government graft they dared to report on or face the consequences.
When it comes to fighting terrorists, the two leaders’ pronouncements are also remarkably similar. Both Trump and Kenyatta prefer to speak in vague and bombastic terms and to demonize Muslim refugees and immigrants rather than offer detailed policy prescriptions. Trump says his plan for defeating the Islamic State is a secret whose details he won’t be revealing to the public anytime soon. One hopes he’ll be sharing them with U.S. generals, as he claims to know more about fighting extremists than they do. The Kenyatta administration, after all, has taken more than three years to come up with a strategy to tackle radicalization and is no closer than Trump to articulating a strategy to defeat the al-Shabab, the Somali-based terrorist group that has murdered nearly 800 Kenyans, most of them after Kenyatta took office.
There is also the question of whether Trump will follow through on his oft-repeated promise to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the United States’ southern border to keep out immigrants (which Mexico has repeatedly vowed not to do). Here, too, Kenyatta can offer some guidance. Depending on which of its officials you choose to believe, the Kenyatta government is building a wall to keep out terrorists either along the entire 700-kilometer border with Somalia or just on a small section near the border town of Mandera. It may or may not be a physical barrier (there has been some talk of a human wall), and its construction is either ongoing or has stalled.
In addition to the wall, Trump has vowed to round up and deport illegal immigrants, who he says are gaming and mooching off the system, driving up crime, taking jobs and opportunities away from U.S. citizens, and depressing wages in America. That little of this is true doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Similarly, the Kenyatta regime has developed a fondness for demonizing refugees from Somalia, blaming them for everything from terrorist attacks to draining the Kenyan economy, as a way of distracting from its own failures. In 2014, under Operation Usalama Watch, it began rounding up and deporting them, and restricting those that remained to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in the desolate north. This year, the government declared it would close the Dadaab camp by the end of this month and has been effectively dumping hapless and unwilling refugees back into their war-ravaged country ever since. (That effort has been suspended following an international outcry).
In September 2013, the prolific Ugandan columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country.” What he meant was that as the government worked to scuttle the cases against the president and his deputy (and with them any prospect of accountability for the 2008 violence), it had brought the country into closer alignment with authoritarian regimes in vogue across much of the rest of the continent. In similar fashion, it is perhaps not so far off the mark to suggest that with the election of Trump, America too has become something of an African country.