Top American diplomat won’t meet opposition during Kenya tour

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. file photo | nmg
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. file photo | nmg 

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not expected to meet with opposition leader Raila Odinga during his Nairobi visit this week, a State Department official said on Monday.

Mr Tillerson is set to hold talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta in his week-long visit to Kenya and four other African countries commencing Tuesday.

Donald Yamamoto, the acting assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, however noted in a Press briefing that he and US Ambassador Robert Godec have spoken with Mr Odinga and other Nasa figures on numerous occasions.

“We’re not ignoring the opposition,” the acting head of the Africa Bureau said. “It plays a critical role.”

But “the main focus is to talk to the government,” said Mr Yamamoto, while revealing that there were regular “behind-the-scenes” contacts taking place between US officials and leaders of the opposition in Kenya.

Mr Yamamoto also firmly endorsed the performance of Mr Godec, whom the opposition has accused of siding with Mr Kenyatta in disputes over the validity of recent elections.

Some Nasa Members of Parliament have called for Mr Godec to be recalled from Kenya.

Mr Yamamoto said Washington’s envoy to Nairobi is among the most senior US diplomats serving in Africa. He said Mr Godec stands as “a model of leadership and engagement.”

Mr Tillerson’s visit to Kenya and four other African countries is partly intended to make amends for President Trump’s reportedly vulgar remarks about the continent and to counter the perception that Africa now matters little to US policymakers.

No new US programmes are to be unveiled during Mr Tillerson’s week-long trip, a senior State Department official said.

Little was said about Kenya during the briefing apart from the observation that it hosts the largest US embassy in sub-Saharan Africa. It is, however, likely that Mr Tillerson will urge Mr Kenyatta to take a more politically inclusive approach to governance.

The two are also expected to discuss Kenya’s role in Somalia and al-Shabaab’s continuing ability to take advantage of Kenya’s internal lapses in security.

US concerns about rising debt levels — and China’s contribution to them — will be on Mr Tillerson’s Kenya agenda as well.

China is playing an “unhelpful role” by extending low-interest credit to many African countries that find themselves mired in debt that acts as a drag on development, the State Department official said. He noted that deepening indebtedness is undoing the achievements of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries’ initiative that saw many African countries forgiven their debts in the 1990s.

That programme enabled many African countries to ease their debt burdens. Having the same countries become re-indebted is “outrageous and terrible,” the US official said.

Kenya’s public debt, which increased by a factor of four between 2014 and 2017, has drawn the attention of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Moody’s Investors Service also recently warned that Kenya’s debt is set to reach 60 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product this year — a factor in the ratings agency’s decision last month to downgrade Kenya’s creditworthiness.