When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta meets on Monday with President Trump, it will be in some senses like looking into a mirror. Both men are fabulously wealthy scions of powerful families. Both were improbably elected (twice in Kenyatta’s case) after controversial elections. Both are dogged by accusations of corruption.
In former times, a trip to the United States for Kenyan officials would include an expectation of lectures on corruption, democracy and the need to respect human rights. On this occasion, that is hugely unlikely. For one, Trump has not kept secret his admiration for strongmen nor his disdain for either democracy or democratic principles. The United States’ silence over the Kenyatta administration’s deportation of foreign consultants, including an American citizen, working for the opposition’s election campaign, as well as its killing of dozens of perceived opposition supporters following the annulled presidential vote last year, was hard to miss.
For their part, Kenyatta and his henchmen have made no secret of their wish to institute a “benevolent” dictatorship in Kenya and to re-create the imperial presidency his father enjoyed during the 15-year period from the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1963 to his death in 1978. It was during this time that the Kenyattas rose from having virtually nothing to becoming the richest family in the land, largely through preying on public resources.
Like Trump, Kenyatta has developed an affinity for authoritarian states, the most obvious being the Chinese. As many across the world last week were condemning Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni for the brutal treatment meted out to an opposition lawmaker and musician, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine), Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, posted photographs of himself hanging out with Museveni as he was in Uganda to receive a lifetime achievement award. At the United Nations, Kenya has voted with the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan to try to shoot down a U.N. resolution recognizing and protecting the role of human rights defenders.
In Trumpian fashion, Kenya continues to push for immunity for heads of state from prosecution at the International Criminal Court, despite a clear provision in the Kenyan constitution specifically allowing for such. The self-serving nature of this push is evident from the fact that the possibility of charges for crimes against humanity at the ICC, in relation to their roles in the 2008 post-election violence, still hangs above Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s head. This is despite the failure of their prosecutions at The Hague in 2014.
For both men, the Kenyatta-Trump summit will also be a welcome distraction from domestic corruption accusations. Trump has just weathered one of the worst weeks of his presidency. His former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was found guilty on tax- and bank-fraud charges, and his former personal lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violations of banking, tax and campaign finance laws, the latter directly implicating Trump in his crimes. As for Kenyatta, he leaves Kenya in the wake of an opinion poll that ranked him and Ruto among the four most corrupt politicians and a faltering anti-corruption drive that has implicated members of his family and some of his top allies.
The confluence of personal interests and outlooks — the White House has said the talks would be “based on our shared democratic values and mutual interests” — might make for a cordial meeting. Kenyatta will be the second African leader (after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari) to visit the White House since Trump’s reported “shithole” comment, but that won’t be an issue. At the time, the Kenya government spokesman declared that Kenya had no problem with the appellation.
A few policy-related flies might be lurking in the ointment for the meeting. These include Somalia, where Kenya is withdrawing its troops from the African Union peacekeeping mission deployed there, while the Trump administration is ramping up U.S operations in the country. The Kenyan troops have been there ever since its ill-advised invasion of its northeastern neighbor in October 2011. Given that the Somalia National Security Forces are nowhere near ready to take on responsibility for securing the country from al-Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group, it will be interesting to see whether Trump tries to pressure his guest into leaving the soldiers in place.
Another issue that might be of concern is the importation of secondhand clothing from the United States. Although Kenya has backed away from plans to impose a ban, the Kenyatta administration still harbors ambitions of growing a local textile industry. (Imports from the United States, in effect, extinguished it. In July, the United States suspended some of Rwanda’s duty-free access to the American market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act after the latter’s imposition of tariffs on used apparel. Whether Kenyatta is able to negotiate a middle path will be a focal point. The situation is not helped by Kenya’s widening trade deficit, which hit $5 billion in July — with textile imports being a major factor.
Looming over the trade relationship is Trump’s escalating trade war with China, Kenya’s main benefactor in recent years. After the detente with opposition leader Raila Odinga, a U.S. endorsement under Trump has very little value compared with the billions in loans Kenyatta is racking up with the Chinese. Still, Kenyatta will be keen to avoid being drawn into that particular fight, despite growing disaffection with the Chinese at home.
Despite Trump’s historic and ongoing attacks on the legacy of former president Barack Obama, Kenya’s most famous “son,” as well as the general disdain with which his host is regarded by much of the country, there is little doubt that Kenyatta will find in Trump a kindred spirit.