President Obama finally goes ‘home’ to a rather disappointed Kenya

Peter Fabricius

When United States (US) President Barack Obama visits Kenya later this month, there are high expectations in Kogelo that he will go a little bit out of his way to go to this village of 3 648 people in the far west of the country, near Lake Victoria.

This is the birthplace and burial place of his father, Barack Obama senior. Obama visited Kogelo when he was a senator, but if he goes there again later this month, it will be his first visit as US President to Kogelo – and to Kenya.


He will find at least two schools, a safari tour, a museum and a hotel suite named after him. And many children. And he will find his paternal step-grandmother Sarah Obama, who still lives in Kogelo. But Obama will also find a village that feels rather disappointed, at least according to TheWashington Post, which went there recently.

It reported that after Obama was elected, electricity arrived in Kogelo and the only road to the village was paved. So Kogelo has been lifted by its unexpected link to the world’s most powerful man. But it is still wrestling with poverty and disease and it expected more from Obama.

Kogelo is still wrestling with poverty and it expected more from Obama

‘He’ll find people proud enough to name their boys Barack Obama, but disappointed that he waited until the seventh year of his presidency to return to his father’s homeland,’ the paper wrote. One of those would be Edwin Okoth, who named his son, now seven, Barack Obama Okoth. ‘When he comes, we will present our problems,’ said Edwin Okoth, confidently, though the White House has not confirmed that Obama will visit Kogelo.

In its high expectations of Obama and also in its disappointment in him, Kogelo may serve as a metaphor for Kenya as a whole – and perhaps also for much of Africa. Kenya certainly expected its native grandson to visit as president before this month. But instead he went to Ghana on his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2009. And two years ago he really seemed to snub Kenya when he visited neighbouring Tanzania on his second African trip, which also included South Africa and Senegal.

Why he has avoided Kenya so far, yet is now finally going there is not quite clear. In 2013, Washington analysts were saying he would not visit Kenya as long as President Uhuru Kenyatta remained under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Now those charges have been dropped.

A former diplomat and seasoned analyst of US-Africa relations believes Obama may also have been reluctant to visit Kenya before because he feared this would play into the hands of the Republican extremists who were arguing that he was not born in the US (as all US presidents must be). ‘Given that he is now in his last two years of office, he clearly has more freedom of action to undertake foreign visits to places like Kenya,’ he said.

Only commerce will ultimately rescue the continent from poverty

Apart from those Kenyans who are disappointed it’s taken him so long, there are now quite a few who don’t want him to come at all. The US Supreme Court’s recent approval of same-sex marriage has ignited a furious debate in Kenya, including on social media. In May, Vice President William Ruto said‘we have no room for gays’ in Kenyan society.

As it is in about 35 other African countries, homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. There was no suggestion before that Obama did intend to make an issue of gay rights, but now he may be compelled to, lest he be accused of backing down under such pressure.

Whatever the particular sensitivities about Kenya may be, many other Africans also feel that America’s first African American president should and could have done more for the continent. Though exactly what, is hard to say.

Responding to such criticism – and no doubt also to a fear that China was stealing a march on the US in Africa – Obama hosted the first US leaders summit with all African countries last August in Washington. The summit was widely hailed by African leaders as a success. It boosted US government commitments, including investment, to targeted areas of assistance to Africa – notably in health, power generation, education and security. But the emphasis was on expanding US private sector investment in Africa and also Africa’s own commerce. And these received a major boost too, in the correct belief that only commerce will ultimately rescue the continent from poverty.

So it is significant that the keynote event which Obama will attend in Kenya this month will be the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, intended to nurture Africa’s own entrepreneurial spirit. Kenya and Ethiopia, the other stop on his visit, are African countries with more entrepreneurship than most.

It will be the first visit by a US president to the African Union

Nevertheless, if the question about Obama’s Kenya visit is why it took him so long to get there, the question about his visit to Ethiopia seems to be why he is going at all – since the Ethiopian government is jailing critical journalists and opposition politicians.

US Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield was asked this in a briefing for African journalists earlier this month. She replied that engaging with governments that the US disagreed with, allowed Washington ‘to express our concerns, to urge those governments to do the right thing.

‘And in the case of Ethiopia, that is exactly what we do. This issue of the arrests of journalists, the blocking of the opposition, is an issue that we discuss on a regular basis with the Ethiopian government. We have urged that they release journalists who have been held … under the anti-terrorism law, and we have pushed for a more even playing field for the opposition.’

That argument usually sounds implausible. Yet, perhaps not coincidentally, on Wednesday this week, the Ethiopian government dropped charges against five of 10 journalists who had been held for more than a year on terrorism charges which most observers considered spurious.

Thomas-Greenfield said the US was also working with Ethiopia in areas of mutual interest. ‘The Ethiopian government has played a key role in the negotiations in South Sudan. They are playing a key role in Somalia.’ Ethiopia was also enjoying success in its development programmes, including those funded by the US.

And so, as Thomas-Greenfield suggested, the key role that Ethiopia – and one could add Kenya – are playing in fighting the violent and extremist Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab and more generally in bolstering regional stability and security, was an important factor in Obama’s choice of countries to visit. And perhaps even the main one.

The US, through its Africa Command, Africom, is investing substantial time, effort and money into training, equipping, transporting and funding Kenyan, Ethiopian and other African troops to take the fight to terror groups like al-Shabaab. Kenya, especially, is paying a high price for its leading role in the fight, with an unending series of reprisals inside Kenya for its incursion into Somalia to fight al-Shabaab.

Sebastian Gatimu, a researcher in the Nairobi office of the Institute for Security Studies says: ‘Kenya has been going through hard times because of terrorism and it would have been taken badly if Obama again avoided Kenya. By coming he will be sending the message; “I’m one of you.” And that will be appreciated.’

While in Ethiopia, Obama will also visit the African Union Commission and will meet its chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This will be an official meeting and not, as some have suggested, just a courtesy call tacked onto the Ethiopian bilateral engagement, Dlamini-Zuma’s office insisted this week.

It will be the first visit by a US president to the African Union and it will send an important signal to the continent – reinforcing the message of Obama’s summit with African leaders last year – that America is stepping up engagement with Africa on its own terms, as a continent, and not only through its allies – like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant


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