The Trump administration should privately pressure the Kenyan government to respect democratic norms and obey the rule of law and the country’s Constitution, two former Washington envoys to Nairobi said on Tuesday.
Johnnie Carson and Mark Bellamy suggested that the US can exert considerable leverage over the government headed by Uhuru Kenyatta because “Kenya needs the relationship more than the US.”
The former ambassadors offered their joint recommendations in a commentary appearing in African Arguments, an online journal published by the London-based Royal African Society.
“Publicly shaming the Kenyatta government or threatening sanctions is not the answer,” Mr Carson and Mr Bellamy wrote.
“However, the US must make it crystal clear privately that there are limits to what the US can tolerate if it is to maintain its close relationship and that continuing to amass executive power unconstitutionally and flout the rule of law seriously tests those limits.”
The Washington Post had recently suggested in an editorial that the Trump administration should threaten to impose sanctions on Kenya’s leaders if the government’s crackdown on dissidents continues.
The two ex-ambassadors said it is “difficult to fathom” why Mr Kenyatta’s government has responded with “fury” to Raila Odinga’s challenge to the president’s legitimacy.
“The harsh reality for Nasa is that it has no legal basis and few realistic options for continuing to dispute Kenyatta’s legitimacy,” Mr Bellamy and Mr Carson asserted.
“Meanwhile, the president’s control of the executive, comfortable parliamentary majorities, command of government resources, loyalty of the security forces, and broad international support means his standoff with Odinga is very unequal.”
The retired US diplomats recounted actions the Kenyan government has taken against opposition figures and the media.
Nasa officials have been “harassed, threatened, detained, and deported,” they wrote, adding that the government had shut down Nairobi’s main television stations in order to block their coverage of Mr Odinga’s “swearing-in” ceremony.
“More ominously,” Mr Bellamy and Mr Carson warned, “the government, including its Inspector-General of Police, is routinely refusing to comply with court orders to release detainees, desist from illegal or unconstitutional acts, answer summonses, and enforce judicial decisions.”
President Kenyatta is in effect “challenging the rule of law in ways that push executive impunity to an extreme not seen since the dark days of Daniel Arap Moi’s one-man rule,” the ex-envoys declared.
They warned that political turmoil will harm Kenya’s economy.
“The current problems could disrupt trade, deter much-needed investment, and frighten away thousands of tourists who visit its beaches and game parks every year,” they wrote.
Kenya today needs outside assistance to help it change course, just as was the case during the post-election violence 10 years ago, Mr Bellamy and Mr Carson said.
“Such help is unlikely to materialise unless the US uses its unique relationship with Kenya to catalyse an international response,” they said.
Preventing a descent into violence must be accompanied by efforts to push the government into respecting the rule of law, which is being challenged by “an increasingly imperious executive apparently determined to remove legal and constitutional restraints on its exercise of power.”
The Trump administration must also state, both publicly and privately, that the US will continue to give transparent support to non-partisan Kenyan NGOs that seek to strengthen democracy and combat corruption, Mr Carson and Mr Bellamy advised.
Now a scholar at a Washington think tank, Mr Bellamy served as US ambassador to Kenya from 2003 to 2006.
Mr Carson held the top US diplomatic post in Kenya from 1999 to 2003. He also served as the State Department’s senior Africa official during President Barack Obama’s first term in office.