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America’s top Africa man came to Kenya on Tuesday. To sighs of relief across the continent, Johnnie Carson — a widely respected diplomat with broad on-the-ground Africa experience — has replaced Jendayi Frazer, who was not well-liked, largely because she was seen as viewing Africa exclusively through the prism of the war on terror.
Carson, recently sworn in as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, swung through South Africa pressing the flesh at President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration before stopping in Kenya. His visit underlines both Kenya’s enduring importance as a continental bellwether and the depth of concern over where it is heading.
Kenya's coalition government was forced into being a little over a year ago, ending politically motivated violence that killed about 1,500 people after disputed elections in late 2007. Since then President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga have failed to achieve almost anything. Reforms have not been implemented. No one has faced justice for the murder and mayhem of last year. As tribal divisions paralyze government business, frustrations are growing among ordinary Kenyans.
“The political tensions must not be allowed to turn into a political crisis, and a political crisis must not be allowed to turn into political violence,” Carson warned after meeting both Kibaki and Odinga.
Carson took up his post only last week. During almost four decades in the State Department he traveled to 40 out of the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa, served as a diplomat in six and as an ambassador in three. Before all that Carson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania.
As expected, Carson’s speech to the U.S. Senate in late April, ahead of his appointment, marked no major policy changes from the Bush administration, but did demonstrate his impressive knowledge of Africa.
The U.S. has influence in Kenya not just because it is Kenya’s biggest foreign donor but because of President Barack Obama, regarded by many Kenyans as a son of the soil since his father was born here. The U.S. needs Kenya too: It may not have much oil but is seen as a buffer against Islamist extremism that might flood in from Somalia to the north.
"We came here not to threaten but to warn a friend about a deep concern,” Carson said. Let’s hope Kenya’s politicians are listening.