China president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has spread throughout the world including the African continent challenging the U.S.’s economic dominance, is proof enough of China’s ambitions. But last week even in Atlanta there were intimidations that a more dynamic role for the U.S. would be welcome in Africa if it upped its commitment.
Kenya’s Ambassador Robinson Njeru Githae in his addresses at the Alliance Francaise in Midtown and then at the Capital City Club downtown asserted that Africans currently favor development partnerships to fulfill their own dreams of economic advancement.
Meanwhile, Felix Antoine Tshisekedi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) newly established president, was advancing a similar message in Washington during his first visit outside of his country as a head of state.
Although the visits to Atlanta by Mr. Githae and to Washington by Mr. Tshisekedi were a coincidence, the similarity of their messages were not. Most notably, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was the only head of state to attend Mr Tshisekedi’s swearing in as president in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, on Jan. 14, even as the validity of the election results were in question.
During his remarks at the Alliance Francaise, Mr Githae clarified his government’s support for the new Congolese president, who leads a country where French is the official language, as part of its vision to create a stronger regional bloc mirrored on the European Union.
The East African Community already includes the neighboring states of Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Kenya also is a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the largest regional economic organization in Africa, with 19 member states and a population of about 390 million.
Mr. Githae’s reception at the Alliance Francaise marked the beginning of a week of events highlighting Francophone Africa. In his remarks he quickly alluded to the traditional divide separating the English and French speaking countries on the African continent, but then cited what he termed the “Famous Handshake” between Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr. Kenyatta’s longstanding political opponent Raila Odinga.
The ostensibly collegial handshake was completed to the amazement of Kenya’s divided political parties in front of the government offices of Harambee House in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, on March 9 last year, just four months following a highly contested election, which Mr. Odinga’s opposition alliance boycotted and dismissed as a farce.
The ambassador said that he was reminded of this political camaraderie primarily because its results were so positive for Kenya’s economy by providing a peace dividend of increased tourism, which brought in foreign currency that helped stabilize his country’s shilling and sparked a rise in the gross domestic product. Last year, he added, there were more American tourists visiting Kenya than from any other country.
Mr. Tshisekedi’s visit to Washington, which included meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Christine Lagarde, who chairs the International Monetary Fund, marked a rekindling of interests in the DRC’s economic future, which has suffered for years from violence and corruption.
Mr. Githae’s underlying message was that Africa’s political and tribal divisions can be healed through economic progress and he cited the Pan-African vision of linking East and West Africa with transcontinental roads and railways. Nairobi already is linked to Mombasa, Kenya’s main port, by a Chinese financed standard gauge railway. And Bechtel, the U.S. engineering, construction and project management firm, is building a high speed expressway between the two cities.
Both Kenya and the DRC have been saturated with Chinese investments, which immediately provoked questions from attendees at the Atlanta Council for International Relations luncheon downtown. Mr. Githae downplayed Kenya’s substantial debt due to Chinese investments by claiming that the service fees would be able to pay off the loans without the fear of losing ownership.
He also encouraged U.S. companies to consider Kenya as an investment destination and a gateway to Africa, especially since Kenya Airways, a SkyTeam partner of Delta Air Lines Inc., now has five weekly flights between New York’s JFK Airport and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.
Mr. Githae called relations between Kenya and the U.S. “at their peak,” and his message was reinforced by the announcement that AGCO Corp., the Atlanta based agricultural equipment manufacturer, would be opening a Nairobi office later this year.
Mr. Githae encouraged Georgia businesses to follow suit by investing in Kenya in a wide range of sectors outlined in its Kenya Vision 2030 plan that lists opportunities from agriculture to tourism and trade.
In stark contrast to the periods around the independence of Kenya from colonial rule and that of the DRC from Belgium, the U.S. developed positive relations from the start with Kenya.
In 1959 and 1960, the “Kennedy Airlift” provided more than 800 Kenyan students with scholarships to study at U.S. universities including former President Barack Obama’s father. In the Congo, however, the U.S. became embroiled in local politics eventually supporting the doomed presidency of Mobutu Sese Seko.
Mr. Githae praised “people-to-people” programs such as the airlift and encouraged others such as KenSap that helps place talented Kenyan students from rural areas into prestigious U.S. colleges and universities as well as relationships such as that of the Westminster-Mount Kenya School’s student exchange.
Aside from helping establish the NYC-Nairobi Kenya Airways flight, Mr. Githae cited as accomplishments during his tenure, persuading the U.S. to extend student visas for Kenyan students to five years and seeing the U.S. become an important export market for Kenyan goods. He also praised the Clinton administration’s African Growth and Opportunity Act for easing access to the U.S. of Kenyan goods such as coffee, tea and flowers.
An unexpected aspect of his visit to Atlanta, he told Global Atlanta, was to learn that there were so many foreign governments represented by consulates general and honorary consuls in the city, an omission on Kenya’s part that he would seek to rectify.