A letter signed by America’s top Africa diplomat accuses the Kenyans of blocking measures promised when about 1,500 people were killed in riots following disputed elections in 2007.
The reforms were designed to fix the discredited electoral commission, end arbitrary rule, stop human rights abuses by police and the military and halt the corruption with which Kenya has become synonymous.
“I am writing to inform you that your future relationship with the United States is linked to your support for urgent implementation of the reform agenda as well as opposition to the use of violence,” wrote Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
Announcing the move in Nairobi, the US Ambassador would not reveal the names of the officials nor whether the letter’s recipients included Mwai Kibaki, the President, and Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister. However, Michael Ranneberger said that the list included “ministers, members of Parliament, permanent secretaries, and other prominent officials”.
The 15 are split almost evenly between the two main parties in the coalition Government, Mr Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement.
“The letters we have sent, with more to come, will be followed by travel bans in the coming weeks,” Mr Ranneberger said. The bans could extend to family members, which will horrify many officials with relatives and children living and studying in the US.
Kenya’s 94 ministers and MPs are among the highest paid in the world, taking home around £9,000 a month. Transatlantic shopping trips for MPs and their families are a commonplace luxury far out of reach of ordinary Kenyans, a third of whom live on less than 80p a day.
Elsewhere in Africa, the US has imposed travel bans on members of President Mugabe’s Government in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir’s Government in Sudan. Joining such company would be a further blow to Kenya’s reputation and mark a low point for a country that had hoped for privileged ties with the Obama Administration based on kinship.
In addition, Washington will “more closely scrutinise any proposals for Kenya in international financial institutions”, said Mr Ranneberger. This could threaten Kenya’s access to loans from the likes of the World Bank but the ambassador said that US aid to the country would not be affected.
“These letters put people on notice,” said Mr Ranneberger. “It is in essence no business as usual.”
Kenya has been high on Washington’s agenda since Mr Obama — whose father was Kenyan — came to office. Mr Carson has visited Kenya twice this year while Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, made it her first stop during her Africa tour in August.
Pointedly, however, Mr Obama chose Ghana for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, a country which, unlike Kenya, held peaceful and democratic elections recently.
In August Mrs Clinton told Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga that the US would act if reforms were not implemented.
Mr Ranneberger said that nothing had yet been done. “The people we have sent letters to are not thugs, they are not criminals, [but] you can’t talk forever. You have to act. We’ve been talking to these individuals for a long time and haven’t seen any action.”
Mr Ranneberger said that the letters were “a reflection of growing frustration in Washington at the highest levels that despite all the rhetoric and commissions and talk, not much has happened”. Last year Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, brokered a peace deal between Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki, brought an end to the politically-incited killings and inaugurated a power-sharing government.
As part of the deal, a schedule of constitutional, electoral, judicial, security, land and economic reforms was laid out and a domestic tribunal was to be established to judge those most responsible for organising the violence.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague promised to start an investigation if moves were not made towards setting up a local tribunal and earlier this week Kenya admitted that it would fail to meet the September 30 deadline set by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor.
Mr Ranneberger said that justice was a key element of reforms: “Seeking to bring about reform goes against 45 years of the culture of impunity.”