This time it’s different: Obama arrives in Kenya, confronting 'extreme and unrealistic' expectations

This is Obama’s fourth trip to the continent since taking office - the most of any sitting U.S. president.

US President Barack Obama arrived in Kenya at 1705GMT Friday evening, on an anticipated trip that will also include a stop in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. 

It has been nine years since Obama last set foot on Kenya’s soil, a span that for Kenyans brought pride, hope and no small portion of unmet expectations.

In 2006, Obama was a junior US senator from Illinois. Joined by his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Obama mixed with locals and took an HIV test to encourage others to do so. He went to the village of Kogelo for lunch with his grandmother and a visit to the grave of his father, whom he barely knew and who died in a 1982 car wreck.

This time will be different. There won’t be any stop in his ancestral village. The logistics of presidential travel and security concerns will keep Obama mostly confined to Nairobi.

The contrast isn’t lost on the president.

“I’ll be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president because I can actually get outside of a hotel room or a conference centre,” Obama said in a news conference last week. Nonetheless the trip is “obviously symbolically important.”

Obama’s itinerary is built around the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit, being held in Nairobi, and a visit to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, the first by a sitting US president. He’ll also meet with leaders of each of the two countries.

Multiple trips

This will be his fourth trip to the continent since taking office—the most of any sitting US president—yet many in Africa expected the first black president and the son of a Kenyan would invest more time and US resources into strengthening ties on the continent.

“Africa in general expected a great deal out of the Obama administration,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “No place expected more than Kenya, birthplace of his father. So the failure to visit Kenya up to now has sort of cast a shadow that’s hung over the administration’s engagement with Africa.”

In an interview with the BBC before he left Washington on Thursday, Obama said the trip will give him a chance to expand US engagement and flesh out his prescription for creating economic opportunity.

“I believe that when people see opportunity, when they have a sense of control of their own destiny, then they’re less vulnerable to the propaganda and twisted ideologies that have been attracting young people,” he told the BBC.

Technology hub

Kenya is a major technology hub and a key player in one of the most dynamic economic regions on the continent. It serves a strategic security role as a bulwark against extremism and disorder coming from Somalia. It’s also home to the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, which houses close to a half million Somali refugees.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous country and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has commercial relationships with major US companies including General Electric and Boeing.

The country is also courting Chinese investment as it fashions itself as a light manufacturing hub and a source for cheap electricity.

Human rights groups have raised concerns about Obama’s itinerary.

Human rights

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report earlier this month that officials of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government have threatened and attacked journalists in a bid to stifle their coverage of issues such as national security, extrajudicial killings and corruption.

Deputy President William Ruto has been indicted by the International Criminal Court’s for his alleged links to violence following the 2007 elections.

In Ethiopia, where Obama will address the African Union at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, the ruling party is accused of political and human rights abuses.

“Ethiopia’s just gone through an election process where the ruling party just won 100%,” Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. “It clamped down using very broad media, civil society and counter-terror laws to shut down any real political dissent.”

Obama said he recognises those concerns and that such combining “blunt talk” with engagement is what’s needed.

“Even when we know that there are significant human rights violations taking place, we want to make sure that we’re there so that we can have this conversation and point them in a better direction,” Obama said in the BBC interview.

‘Unrealistic expectation’

Obama mostly delayed engagement with Africa until his 2012 re-election and he is still working to make up for lost time. He started a popular young African leaders’ initiative as well as agriculture, power and trade initiatives.

In 2013, he visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania and returned to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

“I think Africa had an extreme and unrealistic expectation of what it might expect from President Obama,” said Aly-Khan Satchu, chief executive officer of Rich Management, an adviser to companies and wealthy individuals in Kenya. “But that this visit will close that gap. So this is a big thing, a very big thing.”

White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Obama has been “steadily building” on the work of his predecessors, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. One of Bush’s initiatives, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, is widely praised as an example of effective U.S. aid and engagement.

Time needed

“Across the spectrum, we are building and deepening our relationship with Africa,” Rice said. But many of the initiatives, like Pepfar, need time to take root, she said.

Witney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs now affiliated with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said this trip won’t finish Obama’s efforts in Africa.

“Obama has the potential to be as transformational in Africa as both Clinton and Bush if not more so, and I think this trip goes a long way in that direction,” Schneidman said.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. economy held Obama’s focus during his first term, he began laying some of the foundation for his Africa agenda, Schneidman said, putting trade and investment rather than aid at the forefront.

Symbolically, he said, Kenya is at the centre.

“For Obama to come back to Kenya, to the land of his father,” Schneidman said, “it’s the completion of a cycle, a bridge that’s a testament to what the U.S.-Africa relationship can achieve in the very best instance.”


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