NAIROBI — Air Force One landed in Nairobi this evening, bringing Barack Obama back to his father’s homeland. This will be Obama’s fourth visit to Kenya, but his first as President of the United States. He made his last as a senator in 2006.
Rumors have been swirling about POTUS’s schedule, his lodgings, and the “real agenda” of his three-day stay.
“We fear Obama is coming to teach our children to be gay,” the owner of a beauty salon in a Christian town on the coast told me. In reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, one anti-gay-rights fringe group reportedly plans to protest in Nairobi—and, for reasons as yet unclear, to do so in the nude.
Such signs of unrest notwithstanding, Kenya’s capital is in the throes of a full-on Obama-rama. Weeks ago, in efforts to beautify the bustling city, the government deployed members of the National Youth Service to patch the potholed route of the president’s motorcade, to relocate street urchins, and to clean sewers near the State House, where President Obama and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta are expected to have a closed-door meeting.
“Look! They’re even forcing the trees to grow,” a taxi driver exclaimed, noting the mature palms planted on the boulevard leading toward the UN compound.
This VIP visit is also a prime opportunity for otherwise impoverished citizens to make some fast money selling Obama souvenirs.
Much to the glee of “birthers” in the U.S., Kenya is proud to claim President Barack Obama as one its own.
Past Kenya trips by Obama focused on his ancestral home on the shore of Lake Victoria. This time, however, U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec dispelled such expectations when he Tweeted that the President will not be visiting Kogelo, where his father was born and died. Instead, the full three-day itinerary keeps Obama in and around Nairobi.
If the President’s restricted itinerary is any indication, the emphasis is on creating job opportunities and easing business relations between the countries. The U.S. and Kenyan governments are co-hosting the 6th annual Global Entrepreneurs Summit Youth and Women’s Group (GES Y+W). But above all there will be talk about security cooperation: international, national, and local.
President Obama is expected to lay a wreath at the site of the old U.S. embassy, destroyed in 1998 by Al Qaeda bomb blasts that killed hundreds of people before most of the world had ever heard of that terror organizaion.
Obama’s last stop, on his third day in the country, will be t the indoor arena of the Moi International Sports Complex, also known as Safaricom Stadium Kasarani. There, he’ll address a crowd including members of Kenya’s parliament, leaders of the country’s women and young people, tribal elders, and select citizens carefully vetted by the U.S. embassy.
The vehicles for the presidential motorcade—a flotilla of Chevy Suburbans, including the president’s personal armored vehicle, “The Beast”—were flown in two weeks ago, along with security personnel. Helicopters that saw service with Blackwater in Iraq are part of the force as well.
In all, over 5,000 Americans, from 200 U.S. Marines to diplomats and conference attendees, have descended on Nairobi, taking up all the first-class accommodations in town. The luxury Sankara Hotel has become communications command center. Attack helicopters patrol the skies. Police have compelled journalists to delete photos taken of the Kasarani Stadium.
It strikes some as odd that Obama’s first presidential trip to Kenya will likely be his last. It strikes others as odd that he’s coming at all to a country that has over the last few years been rocked by Islamist militant attacks, the worst being those at the university town of Garissa and Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. A visit to Kenya is, in multiple ways, a visit to a conflict zone.
Security on the national and regional levels, along with efforts to contain the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab—and the pattern of human-rights abuses resulting—are of course major topics on the minds of Kenyans, and East Africa observers.
Obama will give his big speech on his final day in the country a few hundred meters from the football field where, last year, police detained nearly 4,000 Somalis, mostly women and children. Operation Usalama, as it was called, began on April 1, 2014, with mass roundups in reaction to deadly grenade and gun attacks, carried out by unknown forces, in Mombasa and Nairobi. Detainees were reportedly held at this locale near Kasarani for more than three weeks, and much of that time denied food and water.
The detainees were from the predominantly Somali Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, whose residents told Human Rights Watch they paid bribes to avoid arrest or to be released.
Kenya security forces place the blame for current security problems squarely on Somalis, and have announced that all urban refugees will be relocated to Kenya’s refugee camps. But that may only make matters worse. The April attack in Garissa, which left hundreds dead, was said to be carried out by Al Shabaab militants hiding out in the nearby Dadaab camp, a sprawling site that is home at present to 500,000 refugees. Kenya ordered the UN to move the camp within three months.
Security at Dadaab was high on the list of topics that Secretary of Defense John Kerry discussed with the Kenyan and Somali governments when he visited in April, and Obama’s visit coincides with African Mission in Somalia’s [AMISOM] latest offensives, as well as Ethiopia’s cross-border surge and Operation Jubba Valley.
Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, told The Daily Beast, “Al Shabaab has emerged as one of the top Jihadist priorities in American and Western security.” Bryden adds that Al Shabaab cannot be contained by launching all-out offenses within Kenya. “Al Shabaab is killing as many people as before, and its operational tempo remains the same. Obama’s trip is in part a reaffirmation and further upping the ante in saying that we [the West] have to do more and we have to stand by the regions that are doing more.”
“The challenge in Kenya, is going to be addressing the grievances [of Kenyans, mainly do to with land and religious discrimination] that Al Shabaab is exploiting,” Bryden concludes. “The Kenya government has to be seen as taking action and to seriously address these issues in order to deny Al Shabaab opportunity to present itself as the only or best solution for people who share those grievances.”
Obaba is to depart Kenya soon after delivering his speech on Sunday. Next stop, Ethiopia, which has for the last decade been Kenya’s ally in the fight against religious extremism. “All part of an amplified effort in attempt to push back Al Shabaab,” concludes Bryden.