Following President Obama’s election as the US president in November 2008, and his subsequent inauguration in January 2009, there was great anticipation by Kenyans that, because of his ancestral roots in Kenya, he would make a visit to Nairobi a priority — a sort of homecoming. Many considered him Kenyan, taking great pride in his election, but their expectations were shuttered shortly thereafter.
The first writing on the wall appeared in July 2009, when he made his first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa as US President. He visited Ghana and avoided Kenya.
At the time Kenya was under the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, who was not in bad books with the US and Kenya was thriving economically and democratically. Many were therefore left surprised by the “snub”, finding no plausible reason for it, but nevertheless kept hope alive that he would visit Kenya sooner than later.
One popular argument for the “snub” was that Obama avoided visiting Kenya during Kibaki’s reign because of the disrespect he had encountered during his visit to Kenya in 2006 as a senator.
It is said that some of the then Kenyan old guards close to the Kibaki presidency dismissed him as a young boy while rubbishing what they saw as Obama lecturing Kenya on the need to improve democracy and the rule of law.
The insinuation was that he had recently joined politics and lacked experience to be lecturing veterans like Kibaki on how to run a country.
What the old geezers did not appreciate was that Obama’s visit was a tax-payer funded congressional one, and that he had to stick to the script in service to American values as a senator on US payroll.
The writing was signed, sealed, and delivered in July 2013, when Obama made his second visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. For the second time, Kenya was not on his itinerary, which included a visit to Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa.
Kenyans could not hide their displeasure, and many considered it an affront that he visited Kenya’s next-door neighbour, Tanzania, while staying away from Kenya unabashed.
It did not help the situation that, at that time, many Africans were feeling disdained by Obama because of his comments in Senegal, where he asked them to embrace homosexuality.
Many people have cited the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy as the ostensible reason why Obama did not visit Kenya during his 2013 tour of Sub-Saharan Africa, but that might not be true.
First, the US is not a member of the ICC, and, second, President Kenyatta and his deputy, were fully cooperating with the court. They could hardly be considered pariahs. As such, it would not have been a violation of any official US policy or code of conduct had Obama visited Kenya. It might have been uncomfortable, but that is all.
The truth of the matter is that President Obama avoided visiting Kenya because of politics. He was being cautious not to spoil his chances of getting re-elected for a second term. During his first-term election campaign, his nationality and citizenship were challenged and placed in doubt, with a considerable number of Americans believing that Obama was born in Kenya and that he was not qualified to run for US presidency.
The Obama citizenship controversy was so vicious that it produced the Birthers’ movement, which is a legion of anti-Obama propagandists. Had he visited Kenya during his first term, it would have been fodder for the Birthers and doubters.
To the Birthers, the trip would have been confirmation that Obama is Kenyan and they would have termed it a “homecoming”.
The reason he is visiting Kenya now is that he has nothing to lose. A second term is not in the cards and no one is watching him too closely. The focus is on the 2016 elections.
In his first term, Obama played populism on many issues in order to secure a second term. Towards the end of his second term, he has unravelled, exercising more freedom to do things he otherwise would not have done earlier on. That includes visiting Kenya.