Fixing U.S. ties with Kenya: Kerry meets leader ahead of Obama visit

Kerry visits Kenya to ease long strain between two allies in war on terror in East Africa

Secretary of State John F. 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 counter-terrorism 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 Qaeda 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.

Kerry’s meetings pave the way for a visit by President 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.

In recent years, Kenya has seen two major terror attacks by Shabab, Islamist extremists from neighboring Somalia: the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013, which killed 67 people, and last month’s attack on the Garissa University College, which killed 148 people.

Foreign Minister Aminu Mohammed said Sunday that Kenya was seeking stronger support from the U.S. in its battle against terrorism as it struggles to contain the threat from 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 counter-terrorism support and cooperation would continue as he offered condolences to the families of terror victims, including those who died in the Garissa attack.

Kerry said the fight against terrorism in the region was likely to continue for some time. While 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.”

Critics have complained that Kenya’s approach to security often involves abuse of human rights and harassment of people of Somali ethnicity, including mass arrests last year. The government has recently threatened to close within three months the Dadaab refugee camp, home to some 400,000 displaced Somalis, and has been accused of harassing civil society organizations.

Kerry announced Monday that the U.S. would provide an additional $45 million to help the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provide better schools, health clinics and clean drinking water to the refugees.

Kerry also warned Monday that Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's move to seek a third term in office "flies directly in the face of the constitution" of that country.

Three people were shot dead by police as thousands of people protested Monday in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, against the president's bid, according to new agencies, citing Burundi's Red Cross.

The president's supporters insist he's entitled to a third term because he was elected for his first term by parliament, not voters. His opponents argue the bid violates a 2006 peace deal that ended the country's civil war.

The U.S. has tried to pin its policies in Africa to democratic development and respect for human rights, including the rights of gays and lesbians, a controversial issue in Africa, where deeply conservative church and traditional leaders bitterly oppose homosexuality. Kerry’s visit came after Ruto told a church service Sunday that there was no place for homosexuality in Africa.

“We would stand with religious leaders to defend our faith and our beliefs. We would not allow homosexuality in our nation, as it violates our religious and cultural beliefs,” Ruto said. “There is no room for homosexuality in our society. Be assured of that.”

Early last week, Kenya’s High Court ordered the attorney general to register a gay and lesbian organization that had earlier been denied registration.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


11:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with Kerry's announcement of additional aid to help refugees.

9:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with Kerry's comments about Burundi's president.

The article was originally published at 7:50 a.m.