BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Saturday, 10 November 2007, 12:18 GMT
US Navy in Kenya goodwill mission
By Nick Rankin
BBC, Mombasa

Last month the US officially launched its military command centre for Africa known as Africom, a sign that Washington attaches increasing strategic importance to the continent.

A Kenyan man watches a Dhow sail past
Dhows brought Indian settlers to the coast of East Africa

When the Portuguese conquered humid Mombasa in the 16th Century, they built Fort Jesus on a promontory of the old Arab town that commanded the harbour, but also enjoyed cool breezes from the Indian Ocean.

Naturally, when the British arrived on the Kenyan coast at the end of the 19th Century, they located a club for their busy administrators on the same agreeable site.

From the veranda of the Gentleman's Bar, cold Tusker beer in hand, you can watch through graceful palm-trees a lateen-sailed dhow skimming towards the deep blue ocean that Sinbad the Sailor once knew.

On the white walls of the bar hang the crests of many warships that have put in to Mombasa, for it has been a tradition, since 1897, that all visiting naval officers are honorary members of the Mombasa Club.

Security was tight and treated with great seriousness

No American naval officers took advantage of this privilege, however, when the guided missile destroyer USS Porter docked in Mombasa the other weekend, only the third US naval vessel to do so since 1999.

"I don't think the Americans really understand clubs," the Sikh colonel confided over curry.

Black-windowed convoy

The goodwill visit of the USS Porter was significant.

Rear Admiral Jim Hart, commander of the Combined Task Force for the Horn of Africa, flew down from Djibouti. The US Ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ranneberger, arrived from Nairobi in a convoy of black-windowed vehicles.

Commander of the Combined Task Force, Rear Admiral Jim Hart
Rear Admiral Jim Hart took up his current position in February 2007
Security was tight and treated with great seriousness.

A heavily armed, rigid inflatable patrolled the harbour, to prevent any attack like the one on another guided missile destroyer, the USS Cole, in Yemen in October 2000, when Arab assailants detonated a speedboat next to her hull, killing 17 American sailors.

Nor have the Americans forgotten the al-Qaeda bomb attacks on their embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998, which killed nearly 300 and wounded more than 4,000 people, mostly Kenyan citizens.

The USS Porter's visit was the first for eight years in which the crew of an American warship were "at liberty" to go ashore.

A map of Kenya showing Mombasa and Nairobi

They returned to the ship, not from Mombasa's brothels, but from a safari to a Masai village, or clutching the carved wooden animals of a more innocent tourism.

Looking at the ethnic diversity of the young American sailors, it was clear that the United States is now following the Roman rather than the Greek model of empire.

In ancient Greece, women, slaves and foreigners neither counted nor voted. Rome was less racist: anyone could become a Roman citizen, and even the emperor could hail from Spain or Africa.

Plastic armchairs

Rear Admiral Hart gave the mission statement, speaking about assisting African navies, training African armies and making Africa safer for "development" and "prosperity".

The public relations function of the visit was to reassure such elders that the US was no threat to traditional Islam, but only to extremists

In his speech, Mr Ranneberger praised the democracy and diversity of this stretch of the coast, which he had apparently visited eight times in the past year.

He spoke of US humanitarian assistance and the work of the Peace Corps.

He intimated that in 2008, a record 100,000 US tourists would be visiting Kenya.

Apart from one Kenyan government minister - soon sporting a USS Porter baseball cap - most of the guests were from the Muslim communities of a coast that, after centuries of Omani dominance, remains largely Islamic.

They sat in plastic armchairs under an awning on the helicopter deck, with a dolphin carved of ice sweating to extinction amid the buffet behind them.

The public relations function of the visit was to reassure such elders that the US was no threat to traditional Islam, but only to extremists.

It was a ceremony that diplomatically accorded respect and equality to Kenya

The US ambassador had brushed aside the only awkward press question about whether a Kenyan Muslim called Abdul Malik was being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The question reflected the fact that some Muslims captured by US Special Forces on the northern frontier of Kenya, escaping from fighting in Somalia had been subject to rendition.


A smart colour guard of sailors in crisp white and blue performed a solemn ritual drill with flags on the aft deck while the national anthems of Kenya and the US blared through loudspeakers.

US Navy personnel saluted and the bare-headed ambassador stood with his right hand on his heart. It was a ceremony that diplomatically accorded respect and equality to Kenya.

USS Porter
The USS Porter is named after a 19th Century naval officer
But the USS Porter left one in little doubt about the realities of firepower.

Bristling with electronics and packed with Tomahawk missiles, this single destroyer from the US Fifth Fleet could probably sink the entire Kenyan Navy on its own.

When I asked the commanding officer why his ship was chosen for this visit - a vessel named Porter after the American naval officer who helped suppress the Islamic Barbary corsairs of Algiers in the early 19th Century - Commander Bob Hall smilingly said it was "just a coincidence".

There are newer clubs than British ones today, with their own traditions and rules.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 November, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Kenya
01 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
USS Cole suspect 'admits guilt'
19 Mar 07 |  Americas
The controversy over Africom
03 Oct 07 |  Africa
Pentagon launches Africa command
30 Sep 07 |  Americas

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific