While often under the mainstream media radar, East Africa is a national security and foreign policy hot spot for the United States.
African Union forces are fighting the militant Islamist insurgency Al Shabab in Mogadishu, Somalia, where the US and UN-backed Transitional Federal Government is attempting to establish itself. Al Shabab has responded with suicide bombings in Uganda and has threatened other countries in the region. Combined Naval Task Force 151, led by the EU, patrols the Indian Ocean attempting to stem Somali piracy, some of which is sponsored by Islamic terrorist groups. Yet the pirates continue to brazenly capture ships, including American vessels, as far away as the Seychelles and Mozambique. Terrorism experts report that all of East Africa is at high risk of Al Qaeda terrorist activity, with Kenya and Uganda being the leading targets.
After a week of voting in the Sudan, African Christians in the South are expected to have overwhelmingly cast their ballots for freedom from the Arab-dominated North that currently governs the country. Despite recent hopeful signals from Sudanese President Omar Bashir, few believe that Khartoum will allow the oil-rich South to leave Sudan without bloodshed.
Sudan’s extensive oil reserves, new oil finds in Somalia and Uganda and the region’s rich mineral deposits also make East Africa a key strategic region for the global economy. As a commodities treasure chest, the region is of interest to China.
America’s key ally with respect to all of these issues is Kenya. It is from Nairobi that the UN supports the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. Somali pirates captured on the high seas are turned over to Kenyan courts for trial. Kenya has been an important supporter of the South Sudanese government and has reportedly trained its defense forces. The Kenyan National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), which was formed in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, has assisted American law enforcement agencies in arresting a number of terrorists in the country. As a member of the British Commonwealth and a parliamentary democracy, Kenya has traditionally been an ally of the West and wary of Russian or Chinese initiatives in Africa.
Consequently, it was not helpful last month when Kenyan daily newspapers splashed classified US State Department cables disclosed by WikiLeaks on their front pages. Papers touting the “The Secret Files” and “Revealed: [US] Envoy’s Road Map for ‘Regime Change’” were hawked by newsboys and snapped up by Kenyans on busy Nairobi traffic circles. One cable from Embassy Nairobi reportedly stated that “most of the political and economic elite compose the vested interests that benefit from and support impunity and the lack of accountability with respect to governance, state resources, and the rule of law. This includes President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga…”
According to the Daily Nation, just prior to the release of the cables by WikiLeaks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnny Carson called the Kenyan prime minister to warn him about the leaked cables and to apologize for some of the comments contained therein. Putting aside the merits of the Embassy’s reporting from Kenya, the effect of the leaked cables could seriously damage American relations with its important partner in East Africa at a critical time. Fortunately for the United States, for now, the Kenyan government has publicly brushed the matter aside. Assistant Secretary Carson’s telephone diplomacy may have averted a freeze in relations.
A second major story from the leaked cables describing China’s adventures in Kenya also received significant press coverage. Although denied by the Kenyan government, the cables alleged that China was paying Kenyan security service agents for influence and had provided the Kenyan intelligence agency with computers and telecommunications monitoring equipment, which were being serviced by Chinese technicians working on site.
The Daily Nation also reported that the Kenyan Wildlife Service claims 90% of the ivory poachers it detains are Chinese and that poaching increases whenever a Chinese labor camp is established in Kenya. By exposing the dark side of China’s incursion into Kenya, the leaks confirmed to ordinary Kenyans that China’s interest in the region is not entirely benevolent.
China’s long-time support of Sudan’s war crimes-indicted leader Omar Bashir in exchange for easy access to Sudanese oil and close association with other strongmen in Africa demonstrates a lack of regard for human rights and democracy on the continent. Even its motives for involvement in anti-piracy naval efforts off Somalia have been called into question by Western naval officers, who report that China seems more interested in learning Western naval tactics than fighting pirates.
At a time when so many key Western interests are affected by events in East Africa, it is critically important that the United States remains fully engaged in the region and supports our African allies. It is clear that China has recognized the importance of the region and is looking to supplant the United States as superpower-in-residence. Should this occur, America and Africa will be worse off.
Robert C. O’Brien is the managing partner of Arent Fox Los Angeles. He served as a US Representative to the United Nations. He can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien