BY ROBYN DIXON
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
JOHANNESBURG — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday sought to rebuild America’s frayed relationship with Kenya, which went into decline after the 2013 election of a president who had been charged with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.
Kerry met with President Uhuru Kenyatta to discuss counterterrorism efforts and security cooperation. The secretary also met with opposition leaders and laid a wreath at a memorial to those who died in the al-Qaida bombing of the 1998 U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
When the court dropped charges against Kenyatta last year, prosecutors cited Kenyan authorities’ obstruction and refusal to cooperate. Nonetheless, Washington has sought since then to rebuild relations with its most important ally in the war against terror in East Africa. Deputy President William Ruto still faces charges of crimes against humanity at the court.
Obama in July
Kerry’s meetings pave the way for a visit by President Barack Obama in July, his first to Kenya since becoming president, an important step to strengthen relations. Kerry is the first high-level U.S. official to visit the country since his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, came in 2012.
A year later, Kenyatta and Ruto were elected after the top U.S. diplomat on Africa at the time, Johnnie Carson, warned that the selection of two men charged by the international court would “have consequences.”
Although the U.S. endorsed no candidate, the comments were characterized by Kenyatta and Ruto as American interference in the election and were used to boost support for their campaign.
Kenya’s entrenched corruption and its record of serious human right abuses by police and other security forces also frayed relations.
Continued financial aid
In recent years, Kenya has seen two major terror attacks by al-Shabab, Islamist extremists from neighboring Somalia: the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013, which killed 67 people, and last month’s attack on Garissa State University, which killed 148 people.
Foreign Minister Aminu Mohammed said on May 3 that Kenya was seeking stronger support from the U.S. in its battle against terrorism as it struggles to contain the threat from al-Shabab.
Despite tensions in recent years, Kenya receives around $1 billion in U.S. aid annually, much of it security assistance. Kerry signaled Monday that American counterterrorism support and cooperation would continue as he offered condolences to the families of terror victims, including those who died in the Garissa attack.
‘Power to fight back’
Kerry said the fight against terrorism in the region was likely to continue for some time. While al-Shabab has been seriously weakened in Somalia after U.S. drone strikes killed several top leaders, it has gained strength in Kenya, and remains capable of killing dozens of people with devastating attacks that often rely on just a handful of gunmen.
“The terrorists who struck on Aug. 7, 1998, failed utterly in their purpose, which was to implant fear in the hearts of the Kenyan people and to divide America from the citizens of this country,” Kerry said of the embassy attack, stressing the unity of the U.S. and Kenya in the fight against terrorism.
“We know that the struggle in which we are all engaged now is not going to be over soon,” he said.
“We do have, however, the power to fight back, not only with our military and law enforcement, but also through something that may be even more powerful and that may make a bigger difference in the end, and that is our unity and the character of our ideals,” he added. “Unlike some, we do not define ourselves in terms of hate. We are builders, we are teachers, we are dreamers, we are doers.”
Surprise visit to Somalia
On Tuesday, Kerry paid an unannounced visit to Mogadishu in Somalia. Because of concern about a terrorist attack, he didn’t step outside the heavily secured airport and was on the ground for just a few hours.
But his meeting with Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud sent a strong message of support as the country struggles to emerge from years of war. Mohamud called it a “great moment” for the country. The visit was the first ever by a U.S. official at Kerry’s level.
“More than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from your country,” Kerry said in a video message to the Somali people, referring to the 1993 battle when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and the 18 U.S. servicemen died. The U.S. government pulled out of Somalia as a result and has yet to formally return.
“I visited Somalia today because your country is turning around,” Kerry said in the video message. “Now we are returning in collaboration with the international community and bearing high hopes, but also mixed with ongoing concerns.”