One big story I couldn’t cover while traveling last week was Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. Biden traveled partly as Obama’s surrogate at the World Cup and other events, and partly to deliver messages urging reform and stability in different African countries, including not only Kenya but also its neighbors, particularly Sudan.
Biden traveled first to Egypt and met with President Hosni Mubarak. They discussed Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Sudan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and next year’s elections in Egypt.
The Vice President spent the next two days in Kenya, where he gave a speech linking political reform with increased American investment. Biden also focused on Kenya’s role in East Africa. While in Kenya he met with Southern Sudanese officials and attended a discussion about Somalia.
Kenya’s East African sees regional worries trumping US concerns about Kenya’s internal politics.
US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kenya can be seen as signaling a shift in the Obama administration’s approach to East Africa.
Comments by Mr Biden, coupled with reports of an expanding US “secret war” against Al Qaeda, suggest that Washington is now focusing more on Kenya’s strategic sub-regional role than on concerns about corruption and human rights abuses within the country.
The coalition government’s agreement on constitutional reforms represents a major reason for the marked change in Washington’s tone. But growing US trepidation over instability in the region – particularly in Somalia – has also contributed to the decision to cultivate a more co-operative relationship with Kenya.
NTV Kenya goes so far as to say that Biden “endorsed” the new Kenyan constitution, which has sparked controversy in Kenya because of provisions relating to shari’a courts.
On Thursday Biden traveled to South Africa to attend the World Cup. The South African leg of his visit, where Biden met with his counterpart Kgalema Motlanthe, seems to have focused less on substantive political discussions than on the political symbolism of an American presence at the World Cup, but in South African Biden talked Sudan, as he did elsewhere.
Biden’s trip to Africa is a clear sequel to Secretary Clinton’s seven-country journey to the continent last summer, which also included stops in Kenya and South Africa. Whereas Clinton’s approach sometimes seemed stern, Biden’s style has been called “cheerful.” But the same political issues and challenges remain in play, especially with regard to Kenya, where Washington wants to push for reforms but also preserve an alliance with a regional power. Kenya’s perceived importance to Washington has increased even more since last year, it seems, because of continued instability in Somalia but also because of the potential for serious disruption connected with the January 2011 referendum in Sudan.
At Foreign Policy, in fact, Josh Rogin writes that the trip was “all about Sudan.” Rogin says that Biden’s meetings with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and with other African leaders show that concern about Sudan is moving up the hierarchy in the Obama administration. Apparently choosing whom to send to the inauguration ceremonies in Khartoum split Obama’s Africa/foreign policy team last month. Biden’s efforts on Sudan coincided with other US diplomatic moves, including a separate meeting between Scott Gration and Egyptian officials and a stronger strain of criticism toward Sudan coming from the State Department. The absence of Nigeria and Angola from Biden’s itinerary, countries Clinton visited last summer, also suggests that the trip was primarily focused on political stability in East Africa and not on broader US economic interests on the continent.
The Brookings Institution offered a number of perspectives on the trip as it started last week. Check them out and see what you agree or disagree with. Diplomatically, it seems to me that the trip was a success in terms of its stated and presumed aims. But I still feel that Washington’s approach to Africa is narrowly focused on attempts to engineer political outcomes, a strategy that often backfires and also distracts from other kinds of engagement, particularly economic partnership (the language is there, but is always tied to reform, and always overshadowed by politics) and cultural dialogue. In any case, Biden seems to have been a hit, though of course many African leaders are hoping for a visit by the Big Man himself.