US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Kenya on Sunday for talks on security cooperation and ahead of US leader Barack Obama’s visit to his late father’s home country in what will, curiously, be the first to the country by a sitting American president.
Kerry’s trip to the east African nation is the first high-level visit since 2012, when his predecessor Hillary Clinton visited.
Kerry’s visit is preceded by that of former US president Bill Clinton, who arrived on Friday accompanied by his daughter Chelsea and major donors to his foundation, to inspect charity projects on a nine-day visit to Africa.
Clinton did not visit ally Kenya during his term in office, despite touring eight other countries in the region, but his 1998 tour is seen to have flagged off the formal visits that American presidents now make to the region. Before that tour, only three other American presidents had visited sub-Saharan Africa.
Obama would be the first sitting US president to visit Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy and a significant recipient of American aid.
Kerry’s preparatory visit comes after a year of tensions surrounding Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta being charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The ICC has since abandoned the case against Kenyatta over his role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, citing a lack of evidence and Kenya’s failure to cooperate—somewhat softening Kenyatta’s pariah image.
“We’ve had a long relationship with Kenya that goes back more than 50 years, and we have had continuous economic and cultural ties with the Kenyans, and this has never ended. So this trip is not about making amends,” a State Department official said.
“It’s about reinforcing and deepening the relationship that we have had with Kenya, and it’s also partially in preparation for President Obama’s trip that’s going to take place at the end of July.”
Kerry arrives from Sri Lanka later Sunday and leaves on Tuesday, during which he will also meet with Kenyatta.
The fight against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militants will feature high on the agenda, with Kenya struggling to stop increased cross-border attacks by the militants even though it has thousands of troops in southern Somalia.
Last month Shaabab gunmen massacred close to 150 people, mostly students, in a raid on Garissa University in Kenya’s northeast, while reports say the group has been recruiting diaspora Somalis in the US.
The raid followed a string of other massacres in the northeast and Muslim-majority coastal areas, and after the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi which left at least 67 dead.
It was the worst attack since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, where a total of of 213 people were killed, 44 of whom were American embassy staff.
“We think the Kenyans are doing their best. Fighting terrorism is tough, and particularly fighting it in this region is very tough,” the State Department official said.
“Kenya has been the victims of multiple attacks – the Garissa attack starkly illustrated the extent to which Al Shabaab can have an impact on innocent civilians. And so we will be looking at additional ways that we may be able to support the Kenyan efforts to fight Al Shaabab.”
Diplomats said Kerry would nevertheless raise human rights issues with Kenyatta, whose government has been accused of clamping down on civil society groups and the press.
The top US diplomat will also meet Kenyan opposition leaders and rights activists.
“We continue to express our concerns to the Kenyan government. The ICC case against President Kenyatta has ended, but we have also continued to say that the issues that came out of that election must be addressed,” the US official said.
“We will be meeting with civil society organisations. We will be encouraging the Kenyans to look at their civil society laws and to ensure that their laws are not putting undue pressure on civil society… We will be encouraging the government to respect civil society, to also respect the rights of the press,” the official added.