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Why is Obama going to travel to Ethiopia and Kenya?

(By Tibor Nagy)

As usual with our bitterly politically polarized country, reactions have been divided over President Obama’s plans to visit Kenya and Ethiopia later this month. The official reason for his trip is to attend the annual “Global Entrepreneurship Summit” — which is being co-hosted this year by the U.S. and Kenya in Nairobi, which is Kenya’s capital.

GES hopes to bring together more than 1,000 entrepreneurs from across Africa and the world to showcase the positive sides of Africa — as a center for innovation and an ideal destination for investment.

Obama will then go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to hold bilateral meetings with the Ethiopians and to meet with leaders of the African Union — which is headquartered in Addis Ababa. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia and the AU.

The naysayers have their points — some valid, some nonsense. For one, Kenya’s corruption achieves world-class levels. He will be shaking hands with President Kenyatta and Vice President Ruto, who were both indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the widespread ethnic violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections.

Ironically, the two were bitter political rivals at the time, each representing one of Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups — the Kikuyu and the Luo. Obama’s planned visit to his father’s home in the Luo heartland will evoke criticism he is inserting himself into Kenya’s highly charged ethnic politics.

In addition, Kenya’s security environment is highly dangerous — due to incursions and infiltration by the Somali Islamist terror group al-Shabaab, which has been responsible for a number of violent outrages throughout Northern Kenya and Nairobi, the most recent being the April killing of 148 students at Garissa University in the north.

Finally, the visit will no doubt rekindle the “birther” controversy — that Obama was actually born in Kenya — making the Republicans look foolish in a new way to the majority of Americans.

The Ethiopian visit is also awash with controversy — especially since a significant part of the large Ethiopian diaspora in the U.S. is viscerally hostile to the current government in Addis Ababa. And it doesn’t help that the incumbent government of Prime Minister Hailemariam won every parliamentary seat in recent elections while jailing members of the media and opposition politicians under terrorism charges.

But there are also valid reasons for this visit. During his first administration, Obama was roundly criticized by many, including me, for having visited Africa only once — and that for less than 24 hours.

At the same time, Chinese leaders visit Africa regularly, having realized the importance of that continent as a treasure house of commodities and energy, and appreciating its huge potential for imports — given the fastest growing global economies over the last decade have been in Africa. By 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2.4 billion and contain one-fourth of the world’s workforce.

Obama-meets-PM-Hailemariam-EthiopiaGoing to Ethiopia makes sense — it is a country that really matters. The second-most populous in Africa (with about 90 million) and almost twice the size of Texas, Ethiopia is enjoying rapid economic growth which should raise it to middle-income status by 2020. It is the linchpin of stability in a highly violent region (South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, and Somalia) and has been an unflinching ally in fighting the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab Somali Islamists.

Ethiopia has also made huge strides in developing its university system. While it is nowhere near a model democracy, its political evolution has been positive — with each government less authoritarian than the one before. The youth, energy and dynamism of that nation is incredible, and it will be a long-term valuable US partner.

If democratic purity was the sole criteria for where Obama goes, then he would travel little — including missing some highly valued long-term US allies.

Kenya, similarly, despite its warts, is a country with huge potential which is under siege for its role in fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia. Nairobi is East Africa’s commercial center, and Kenya has been a global leader in implementing mobile phone technology to allow people in remote areas or without bank accounts to pay bills and conduct other commercial transactions.

Of course, the real reason Obama picked Kenya is because of his heritage — and at this stage of his Presidency, he doesn’t much care how his critics react to his travels. However, before one criticizes his wish to visit the land of his heritage, we need to recall when Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton each visited theirs — Ireland — the public and media reactions were overwhelmingly positive.

Finally, an “inside the Embassy” perspective on Presidential visits: they are a huge pain! The delegation usually requires around 800 hotel rooms; the advance party arrives in one or more B-747s carrying everything from communications equipment to armored cars; and the presidential security folks usually could care less about maintaining smooth working relations with the host country counterparts; justifiably, their primary and only concern is the security of the visiting party.

The biggest egos rarely belong to the senior people; it’s usually junior staffers who are ill-mannered, ill-tempered and treat the local embassy staff as incompetent servants. Everyone breathes a sign of relief on “wheels up” and the most positive thing said about such visits is nothing bad happened!

TIBOR NAGY is vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech and served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002 and to Guinea from 1996 to 1999.

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