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Illinois Lawmaker Awaits Confirmation As Ambassador; Experts Describe Kenya's Challenges

Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Illinois State Sen. Kyle McCarter’s nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Kenya comes at a time of challenges for the African nation.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his intention to nominate McCarter.

Kenya, which has a population of 47 million, has its share of political challenges. Its democratic process was at a standstill last year when an opposition political leader refused to accept the reelection of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenya has also struggled with attacks from al-Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia, and was the site of a 2013 terrorist attack on a shopping mall that left nearly 70 dead.

John Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and an expert on Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says American diplomacy is key in a country like Kenya.

'Most Kenyans are pro-American, and so they will listen to what an American ambassador has to say.'

“The American ambassador has an important pulpit in Kenya,” Campbell says. “Most Kenyans are pro-American, and so they will listen to what an American ambassador has to say.”

McCarter and his family have led charity efforts in Kenya since the mid-1980s. Last year, Illinois’ Republican congressional delegation endorsed McCarter for the job, citing his experience “negotiating with tribal chiefs and other dignitaries” and his ability to speak Swahili.

Another expert on the region at the Council on Foreign Relations, Michelle Gavin, says someone coming in with a background in charity — focusing on a country’s most vulnerable citizens — would need to change his orientation as ambassador.

“It all depends on the approach that he takes to the job and his understanding that that’s one lens through which, in the past, he’s engaged the country,” Gavin says. “The aperture is going to broaden dramatically.”

McCarter seems to be aware of that. In a telephone interview, he says he wants to help Kenya grow economically.

"There are opportunities that we can create, by investments in their country, that can be a win-win for the United States and Kenya,” McCarter says. “So those are some of the things that I’m going to look to.”

The current U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, on Thursday issued a statement welcoming McCarter's nomination.

"Kenya holds a special place in my heart," Godec says in the statement. "I offer a warm 'Asanteni Sana' to the Kenyan government, Kenyan people, and my embassy colleagues for their extraordinary friendship and collaboration over the years."

Goden, a career foreign service officer, was nominated by then-President Barack Obama more than five years ago.

McCarter's nomination is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, would only say he’ll review McCarter’s qualifications for the post.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, also an Illinois Democrat, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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