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Obama’s Long-Awaited Kenya Trip Should Strengthen Economic Security Ties | Commentary

By Robinson Njeru Githae When President Barack Obama travels to Kenya in July, he won’t only be returning to his father’s homeland. He’ll be visiting one of the most pro-American societies in Africa, an ally against international terrorism and a regional economic hub, with great potential as a trading partner.  

When he returns from his long-awaited visit, coinciding with the Global Entrepreneurship Summit from July 24 to 26 in Nairobi, the United States and Kenya should take three steps to strengthen their partnership.  

First, both countries should step up their cooperation in the struggle against terrorism. Second, Obama soon should sign the African Growth and Opportunity Act, furthering trade between the U.S. and 41 African countries, including Kenya. Third, the U.S. should allow nonstop flights to and from Kenya, promoting trade and tourism.  

This alliance benefits both countries. Kenya is a reliable security partner in strategically critical East Africa, helping to stop the spread of terrorism. Increased trade opens up an expanding market for US exports, thereby supporting American businesses and jobs.  

Our friendship dates back before the Republic of Kenya — and Obama — were born. “The Airlift,” a program conceived by the Kenyan nationalist leader Tom Mboya and funded by the U.S., brought promising Kenyan students to this country, preparing some 70 percent of Kenya’s early leaders, including an economist in the Finance Ministry, Barack Obama Sr.  

The U.S. was among the first nations to recognize our independence in 1963, and Kenyans are among the most pro-American people in Africa. In a 2013 BBC World Service poll, 69 percent of Kenyans viewed the U.S. positively.  

Moreover, Kenya and the U.S. confront a common enemy: international terrorists from al-Qaida and its Somali affiliate, al Shabaab.  

Since Kenya is on the frontlines of the fight against terrorism, the U.S. is providing equipment and training for our security forces. Kenya is revamping and retooling those forces while reinforcing our border with Somalia and increasing patrols. With terrorists on the march, the U.S. should continue to support our efforts against violent extremism in East Africa.  

Alongside security measures, the best bulwarks against instability are an expanding economy and an inclusive democracy. Kenya was selected as the site for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit because our economy is led by the private sector and oriented toward innovation and growth.  

With deposit insurance covering 95 percent of bank accounts and more than half of Kenyans participating in mobile-phone banking, Kenya’s financial sector is an engine of economic growth. Through the social security system, Kenyans can get loans for education, housing and business startups. Encouraging entrepreneurship, the Uwezo Fund offers financing and grants for promising new businesses, with a special focus on women and youth. Kenyan entrepreneurs and foreign investors benefit from Kenya’s growing number of well-educated, English-speaking, tech-savvy workers.  

Kenya’s economy is expected to expand 6.5 percent this year, after growing 5.3 percent in 2014 and 5.7 percent in 2013. In order to expand trade with African economies such as Kenya’s, the U.S. Congress has voted to renew AGOA, which has been in effect since 2000 but was slated to expire on September 30. The renewal of AGOA, which has passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins, is headed to the president’s desk for signature, a development that is being cheered across the African continent and especially in Kenya.  

Economists estimate that AGOA supports 120,000 jobs in the U.S. and 200,000 in Kenya. For Kenya, AGOA opens opportunities to export horticultural products, species, coffee, tea, fruits and nuts. For the U.S., Kenya offers a growing export market for aircraft (including nine Boeing Dreamliners recently sold to Kenya Airways), machinery, optical and medical instruments, and electronics.  

Bilateral trade between Kenya and the U.S. has more than tripled, from $348 million in 2000 to $1.1 billion. But there is still room for expansion. With the Obama administration’s anticipated approval of direct flights from Kenya to the U.S., trade is expected to expand, especially in perishable products such as Kenya’s world-famous flowers. `  

Even more importantly than our common interests, Kenya and the U.S. share common values, especially a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Elected in free and competitive balloting in 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta leads a government that represents every major ethnic and geographic community. Through the decentralization of decision-making and a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, the government is striving to earn the confidence of every citizen.  

Ultimately, good governance is the best antidote to extremism, the most effective encouragement of economic growth, and the strongest sign that Kenya and the U.S. are natural allies.  

Robinson Njeru Githae is the ambassador of the Republic of Kenya to the United States.  

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