107 years of history: Africa and its fun American presidents stories, plus the Big Man who gave Obama a $50,000 gift

First ever Safaris, impromptu visits to Somalia--a trip by an American president to Africa, though rare, never makes for a dull moment.

US President Barack Obama Friday arrives in Kenya, making history as the first sitting American leader to visit the East African country. He will also notch another record, becoming the first American leader to visit Ethiopia and the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.   

It is interesting that despite the two countries long-standing ties with Washington, the relationship has until now not yielded a single presidential visit. Obama’s visit to Kenya is highly anticipated partly it is his ancestral home, his father having hailed from there. He has made prior visits, most recently in 2006 as a senator, but not as president. 

But several former US presidents have visited Kenya, starting with a 1908 safari by Theodore Roosevelt that also took him through Uganda and Sudan. 

Roosevelt’s drunken rampage in Nairobi

Roosevelt’s trip involved more hunting than diplomacy. It also involved binge-drinking, some of which led to an infamous drunken rampage through Nairobi where he and his son Kermit stole stone lions from the front of a mosque.

Minibus driver Solomon Murimia calls on clients next to his “matatu” minibus with a painting depicting US Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama and US civil rights leader Martin Luther King on July 22, 2015 in Nairobi. (Photo/AFP).

Sub-Saharan Africa has tended to feature on the lower rungs of American foreign policy, but many presidential visits have been steeped in history. The first trip to the region was by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, and involved two stopovers in The Gambia and Liberia on his way to and from the pivotal Casablanca Conference in what was then French Morocco. 

That flight holds a historical first as the first time a sitting US president travelled to a foreign country by airplane. He couldn’t travel by sea because German U-boats were wreaking havoc in the waters, and even the journey by air was convoluted and shrouded in secrecy. 

It was also the first time a sitting US President ever visited the African continent.

Comparatively, North Africa has enjoyed more American attention due to its links with the Middle East. With, among other things, the primacy of oil and gas, the Middle East has for long occupied centre stage in US foreign policy. 

Israel has been a particularly thorny issue, explaining why Egypt, as a member of the Arab League and sharing a rather acrimonious border with Israel, has been visited by five sitting US presidents a record 16 times. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also visited Tunisia and Morocco in 1959. 

Former US President George W. Bush on a safari truck during his visit to the Mokolodi Nature Preserve in Gaborone, Botswana on July 10, 2003. (Photo/ AFP/Getty Images).

But all these pre-independence visits had nothing to do with US diplomacy in sub-Sahara Africa in general, at a time when most of the region was under the yoke of colonialism.

Even after their independence, North Africa was still king, even if the only visit for the two decades after Eisenhower’s 1959 trip was a 1974-trip by controversy-burdened Richard Nixon to Egypt. 

Jimmy Carter’s record

But his successor, the Democrat Jimmy Carter, holds the record for the first official visit by an American President to Africa. 

He visited Nigeria, then under President Lt Gen Olesgun Obasanjo, in 1978. The extensive trip included many different events, one of the more interesting of which was when Obasanjo took Carter on a tour of an experimental farm he was running. Carter also stopped by Liberia, America’s stepchild.  

Carter’s trip to Nigeria was partly inspired by the desire to find an alternative to Middle Eastern oil. The 1973 oil crisis had quadrupled global oil prices and forced the US to start scouting for energy options. Nigeria’s extensive crude oil reserves presented an option, triggering greater interest in engaging with its leadership. Within no time, Nigeria and Angola accounted for about 15% of America’s oil imports.

Carter lost the next elections to the Republican Ronald Reagan. Republican presidents have typically kept Africa at arms length, which explains why Reagan’s two-terms in power saw very little engagement with sub-Saharan Africa. 

Bush Senior’s Somalia surprise

His successor, George HW Bush, was also Republican and only broke the “snubbing” tradition when he landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, on New Year’s Eve 1992. 

There he made an extensive three-day visit to aid workers and American soldiers. The visit though, was more about American workers than the Somali people. Bush was also already on his way out, as Bill Clinton would be sworn in less than three weeks later. Bush Sr. holds the record as the only sitting US President to visit Somalia.

American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935. (Photo/Getty Images).

Clinton made the most expansive trips to sub-Saharan Africa. He toured Senegal, Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ghana in 1998. 

In Rwanda, he made a public apology for not doing more to stop the 1994 genocide. In Botswana, the Clinton family went on a safari, perhaps the first ever by a sitting US President. 

Clinton and Obasanjo

In the twilight of his presidency, he toured Nigeria and Tanzania. Interestingly, when he visited Nigeria in 2000, he found the same man Carter had found in power 22 years before. 

Olesgun Obasanjo had just won the Nigerian presidency, this time as a civilian president. Clinton had actually overflown Nigeria during his 1998 trip, most likely avoiding the murderous Sani Abacha and his regime. 

Obasanjo quickly rebuilt his international networks, hoping to leverage them to garner more support for his domestic policy. Clinton’s visit provided such vindication, although there is some proof that his subsequent post-presidency visits were not as amiable.

Clinton’s successor, George Bush, broke the Republican tradition. For a Republican president, Bush Jr’s interest in Africa remains rather fascinating. His administration poured billions of dollars into supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS and supporting economic development. 

In what had almost now become a familiar route, Bush visited Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt. In South Africa, he received a rather cold welcome due to America’s invasion of Iraq. Part of it came from Nelson Mandela’s public misgivings about the war. Botswana gave him a warmer welcome, but a safari was not on the itinerary this time due to security fears. 

Clinton in Uganda in 1998. (Photo/White House).

During his second term, he visited Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia. Liberia had finally found her way back to peace after years of turmoil, assasinations, and civil wars. US presidents had avoided the country over the course of the carnage, despite their close historical links.

Obama’s turn

Obama has probably had less pressure to visit the African continent than his predecessors. His interactions with sub-Saharan Africa have been less complex than those of both his predecessors. In his first term, he only made two visits to the African continent, one to Ghana and one to Egypt. 

For the first time in two American presidencies, Nigeria and Uganda were snubbed. Term-limit politics and political violence have seemingly hurt Uganda’s shine for the US, although the latter remains a key player in the African Union peacekeeping in Somalia where it works closely with the US. Museveni, in power since 1986, has reigned through five American presidencies, three of them lasting two-terms.

When he finally did visit East Africa, Obama landed in Tanzania. Three months before, Tanzania had played host to Chinese president Xi Jinping. The global powers, regional analysts argued, seemed to competing for resource-rich Tanzania’s future. Obama also visited the usual suspects, South Africa and Senegal, with a further visit to the latter to bury the global icon Nelson Mandela.  

Obama’s visit to Kenya will most likely be more emotional than stately. He has ancestral connection to the country, and Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta is no longer shackled to the ICC. Nairobi’s streets have been scrubbed and beautified, in true African fashion, to host their son. 

The Ethiopia story

His visit to Ethiopia is most likely easier now than it would have been when Meles Zenawi and Muammar Gaddafi were alive. Prime Minister Melese Zenawi was a strong, controversial, albeit very successful, strongman. 

Without him, Ethiopia no longer appears as controversial a destination as it was, despite the fact that a recent election gave the ruling party all the seats in Parliament. Meles’ successor Hailemariam Desalegn has surprised many.

While no different philosophically from Meles, his style is more subtle, and he has been probably even more effective than his successor without being as combative.

Libya’s now long-slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi had also held a stranglehold on the African Union, making US Presidents skip its headquarters in Addis like the plague.

Both countries will probably feel the need to give Obama gifts to commemorate his historic visits. They should probably know though that Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba holds the record for the most expensive single gift given to Obama. 

Bongo gave Obama a “14” blue mask sculpture by Daum” valued at $52,695 in September 2011.

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