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This article was first published in the Washington Post
Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, a popular late-night news satire and talk show in the US, once described Donald Trump as America’s first African President. In fact, Americans could do worse than look to the continent in general, and Kenya in particular, for a preview of what life under a Trump administration would be like.
President-elect Trump and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta have much in common. Both are fabulously wealthy, the children of privilege with questionable success in business, and both have been accused of fanning ethnic and racial hatreds. Both have risen to head their respective countries in the most unlikely of circumstances and in the face of global opprobrium. While many across the world echewed Trump’s xenophobia and reckless approach to international affairs, Kenyatta had faced similar opposition to his candidacy three years earlier. This was a consequence of his – and his running mate’s – indictment at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in relation to Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence in which over 1000 people died.
Trump and Kenyatta even have similar ideas about how countries should be governed.
Take their shared suspicion and contempt for the media. Where Trump has called journalists “scum”, “illegitimate” and “horrible people” and declared his aim to make it easier to sue them, Kenyatta regularly derides newspapers as only good for wrapping meat, and his administration has introduced new laws meant to stifle independent reporting. It has arrested and beaten journalists who persist in asking uncomfortable questions, and, leveraging its advertising and regulatory muscle, leaned on media houses to fire them or to pull their stories. Just recently, in response to a spate of corruption stories, Kenyatta declared that the media should be required to prove any allegation of government graft they dared to report on or face the consequences.
When it comes to fighting terrorists, their pronouncements are also remarkably similar. Both prefer to speak in vague and bombastic terms and to demonize Muslim refugees and immigrants rather than offer detailed policy prescriptions. Trump says his plan for defeating ISIS is a secret whose details he won’t be revealing to the public any time soon. One hopes he’ll be sharing them with the generals since he claims to know more about fighting the extremists than they do. The Kenyatta administration, after all, has taken more than three years to come up with a strategy to tackle radicalization and is no closer than Trump to articulating a strategy to defeat the Al Shabaab, the Somali based terror group that has murdered nearly 800 Kenyans, most of them after Kenyatta took office.
There is also the question of whether Trump will follow through on his oft-repeated promised to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the US’ southern border to keep out immigrants (which Mexico has repeatedly vowed not to do). Here too, Kenyatta can offer some guidance. Depending on which of its officials you choose to believe, the Kenyatta government is building a wall to keep out terrorists either along the entire 700km border with Somalia, or just on a small section near the border town of Mandera. It may or may not be a physical barrier (there has been some talk of a human wall) whose construction is either ongoing or has stalled.
In addition to the wall, Trump has vowed to round up and deport illegal immigrants whom he says are gaming and mooching off the system, driving up crime, taking jobs and opportunities away from US citizens and depressing US wages. That little of this is true doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Similarly, the Kenyatta regime has developed a fondness for demonizing refugees from Somalia, blaming them for everything from terrorist attacks to being a drain on the Kenyan economy, as a way of distracting from its own failures. In 2014, under operation Usalama Watch, it begun rounding up and deporting them, and restricting those that remained to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in the desolate north. Then, earlier this year, the government declared it would close the Dadaab camp by the end of November and has been effectively dumping hapless and unwilling refugees back into their war-ravaged country ever since. (That effort has now been suspended following an international outcry).
In September 2013, the prolific Ugandan columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country”. What he meant was that as the government worked to scuttle the cases against the President and his deputy (and with them any prospect of accountability for the 2008 violence), it had brought the country into closer alignment with authoritarian regimes in vogue across much of the rest of the continent. In similar fashion, it is perhaps not so far off the mark to suggest that with the election of Donald Trump, the US too has become something of an African country.