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Kerry's Surprise Visit to Somalia Part of Obama Administration's Charm Offensive in Africa

John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to officially visit Somalia as the US said it planned to post an ambassador to Mogadishu.

by Kayla Ruble
May 5 2015, 9:55pm

Photo via Flickr

John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to make an official visit to Somalia, landing in Mogadishu on Tuesday morning for a last-minute meeting with top Somali officials sequestered in the capital city's airport and walled in by seven-foot high sandbag barriers.

The State Department informed the Somali government on Monday about the secretary's visit, just hours before he touched down in the country — traveling from Nairobi where Kerry spent two days meeting with politicians and visiting wildlife reserves. During the short visit, which was expected to last less than four hours, Kerry met with Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, and other local leaders.

President Mohamud described Kerry's visit as a "great moment." According to Reuters, the head of state remarked to Kerry that "the roads are less bumpy and we have traffic jams," to which the secretary responded "Traffic jams! Well, you're getting normal."

Related: Kenya doubles down on anti-gay stance, calling homosexuality 'unnatural and un-African.'

A senior State Department official told reporters on Monday the purpose of the trip was to underscore the US government's long-term commitment to the country, which shares a border with Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. The official said the US planned to expand and normalize its diplomatic presence in Somalia, with plans for Katherine Dhanani, America's first ambassador to the tumultuous nation since the 1990s, to soon relocate from Kenya to an office "on the ground" in Somalia.

On the agenda were issues ranging from internal security issues, the African Union military mission in the country, and development progress ahead of the 2016 elections. At the heart of the meeting was the regional fight against Somali-based militant group al Shabaab, which has carried out deadly local bombings in recent months, as well a string of violent attacks across the border in Kenya.

The State Department said the visit would "send a strong signal to al Shabaab that we are not turning our backs on the Somali people and that we will continue to engage with Somalia until we bring al Shabaab's terror to an end."

While highlighting significant progress of state-building in Somalia, the State Department official told reporters on Monday that government infighting has delayed progress in the country, which was considered a failed state for much of the last two decades. Kerry's trip to Somalia shows the administration's commitment to supporting the political security and stability achieved in recent years in the country, according to former US diplomat Johnnie Carson, who is how a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). 

"The secretary's visit is to be applauded, [and] continues the effort to support Somalia's climb out of a very deep trough of instability that had turned that country into a failed state for much of the last two decades," Carson, a former ambassador to various countries in Africa who had a 37-year-long diplomatic career, told VICE News.

Kerry's also made security issues a key focal point during his Kenya trip. He visited a memorial for the 1998 US Embassy bombing in the Kenyan capital, while also commemorating victims of the April 2 Garissa University College attack, in which al Shabaab gunmen killed 147 people. He affirmed America's support in the country's fight against terrorism, particularly al Shabaab-orchestrated attacks.

"The US continues to stand resolutely with the government and people of Kenya in the effort to end scourge of violent extremism," Kerry said on Monday.

"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," Kerry told reporters.

During a Monday meeting with Kerry, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta requested "support in terms of training, equipment and surveillance," while expressing the desire to "work more closely with the US to control financing of terrorism."

Kenya has increased efforts in recent months to fight the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants, particularly the threat of al Shabaab extremism growing within the country's borders. Many have criticized Kenyatta and his harsh crackdown, which has included shutting down money transfer services to Somalia — a key lifeline for many — and closing the accounts of various human rights organizations, citing unfounded connections to terrorism.

Carson highlighted the importance of Kerry's visit to Kenya for strengthening US relations with arguably its most important partner in the region, especially as the country deals with the aftermath of the al Shabaab-linked attacks. He noted, however, that it's an equally important time to encourage Kenya to take appropriate and proper steps in dealing with terrorism and terrorist suspects.

"It's important that as Kenya goes after those responsible for the al Shabaab attacks that it be very mindful not to undermine the human rights of individual citizens, not to undermine the rights of its Muslim population, and not to increase, by its actions, tensions across society," Carson said. 

Kerry's meeting with Kenyatta led to an important development on the status of Dadaab refugee camp, Africa's largest refugee camp, which has existed since 1991 and is home to approximately 360,000 Somalis. After the Garissa attacks, the government gave the United Nations three months to shut down the camp and send its residents home, with the harsh order sparked by fears that the camp fosters Muslim extremists. After the meeting, Kerry said Dadaab would stay open and announced $45 million in funding towards the UN's refugee agency in Kenya — adding to the $289 million already directed toward refugee efforts in the country.

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"I'm confident Dadaab will remain open while we work through how they will be able to go home, by doing a better job of finishing our task in Somalia," Kerry said.

Kerry has weighed in on other regional issues during his trip and, in the past few days, he condemned the Burundian government for its harsh crackdown on protesters, pledged money toward South Sudan while criticizing its leaders as peace negotiations remain stalled, and even reaffirmed the White House's support for gay rights after Kenyan Deputy Vice President William Ruto's told a church congregation that there was "no room for gays" in the country.

Kerry's trip continues through East Africa, stopping next in Djibouti before heading on to Yemen.  

Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton traveled to Liberia to congratulate the country on its success in fighting Ebola and, just last week, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski landed in Burundi, where he met with student protesters seeking refuge outside the US embassy in the capital of Bujumbura. In July, President Barack Obama will travel to Kenya for the first time in an official capacity to attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurs Summit and meet with regional officials. Obama will be heading back to the continent for the first time since 2013, when he made stops in South Africa, Tanzania, and Senegal.

USIP's Johnnie Carson said that over the next 18 months the administration is likely to maintain its focus on Africa. He noted that a second term focus on the continent is not new, explaining that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton took similar action. Carson even predicted Obama may make at least another visit to Africa after his July trip to Kenya.

While heightened focus and response to issues in a region is expected when White House officials are on the ground, the Center for Global Development's Chief Operating Officer Todd Moss told VICE News he believes the administration's current focus on Africa is part of its attempt to leave a legacy during Obama's last year and a half in office.

"They want to try to leave something behind on Africa policy and that's part of this effort," said Moss, who was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department under President George W. Bush. "I think the administration, after a pretty rough first term, has done a pretty good job of highlighting international security and economic interests with Africa."

While legacy may be a motivator, Moss said the shifting focus on economic and security issues is a positive sign, explaining that the US has typically treated Africa as third wheel, focusing on lower tier issues in the continent.

"Something like wildlife trafficking is just not a first tier issue, it's not an issue we're going to build bilateral [relations with]," Moss said. "It's not the foundation for a serious foreign policy. We would not build our policy with Asia or Europe around an issue like wildlife trafficking or youth engagement."

According to Moss the administration has stepped up its aid programming in the region during Obama's second term, particularly focusing on increasing access to, and reliability of, electricity in the region. Currently, two-thirds of Africans do not have electricity, something that Moss said has held back countries in the region, including major economies like South Africa. He noted that putting money toward initiatives like this can also win the US both favors and partners when trying to combat terrorism.

"It actually gives us a big benefit because it's exactly the kind of engagement African partners are looking for," he said. "It's not just transactional, when you start treating your allies as peers, with the respect that they deserve, you wind up getting a lot more benefit."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Photo via Flickr