Speaking to a packed McGhee Library Wednesday afternoon, former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Johnnie Carson discussed Kenya’s vital importance to the United States.
“Kenya is the most important non-oil and non-mineral-producing country on the continent,” he said. “It’s one of our most significant trading partners.”
Carson emphasized the many connections the two countries have.
Kenya was the only African country where the United States had military access until nearly eight months ago. It has also been the staging point for vast relief operations throughout central Africa and the horn of Africa.
“At one point we had so many planes flying around central Africa that we had to bring in our own petroleum to allow commercial flights to operate at a normal pace,” Carson said.
Although relations between the two nations have been amicable, there has also been stress in the relationship.
Carson pointed to Kenya’s slow transition to democracy and its record of systematic corruption and human rights abuses as reasons relations have sometimes been strained.
He described the death of one individual outlining how he was found “shot, stabbed and partially burned.” The Kenyan government called the death a suicide.
Carson’s most pertinent comments were saved for a brief discussion of al Qaeda and its role within the country.
Terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
“Al Qaeda has been successful along the coast of Kenya where many people feel that they have been forgotten and feel that they don’t receive adequate services,” Carson said. “In the absence of social opportunity, radical Islamic organizations have come in from the outside. There are active al Qaeda cells in Kenya.”
At the end of the lecture, Carson described his great optimism for Kenya.
“If the government can continue the process of reform and can attract more investment, Kenya has the possibility of being the shining example it was in the 1960s,” he said.
Carson was the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya from August 1999 to July 2003. He is currently the senior vice president at the National Defense University.
The lecture was sponsored by the African Studies Program.