Article written

  • on 28.07.2015
  • at 02:43 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

Obama’s balancing act in Kenya 0

Twenty years ago, a young Barack Obama, on the verge of his first political campaign for an Illinois state senate race, published his real life bildungsroman, Dreams From My Father. The book chronicled his life up to his entry into Harvard Law School and it provided a thought-provoking description of his trip to Kenya so that he could come to grips with the tenuous but persistent legacy of his father’s Kenyan origins and on his own circumstances as an American, an African American, and a man with a potent but virtually unexamined African heritage.

Over the years, Obama has made the occasional visit to Kenya but it is only now, in the sixth year of his presidency, that he has finally returned to that nation as part of a two-country visit along with Ethiopia. Some in Africa have been waiting impatiently for this moment but this particular visit comes at the end of a week in which Africa has been a major focus. There was Obama’s signing of the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act for the next 10 years, as well as the high-profile Washington visit by recently elected Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, in addition to the two-nation visit.

A number of factors seemed to keep Obama away from Kenya during his presidency, even though he had visited the continent four times (Ghana, South Africa twice, and Egypt). In part, of course, a Kenya visit would have been particularly awkward given the proceedings taking shape against President Uhuru Kenyatta at the International Criminal Court. Those charges have now been suspended, of course, and so that impediment had largely gone away.

But out there, somewhere in the background, was also that lingering “birther” calumny, pushed by people such as Donald Trump, that Barack Obama had secretly been born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and that therefore he was never eligible to be president of the US — that in some weird way he was a kind of surreptitious African-Muslim-Manchurian candidate placed in office by shadowy, dark forces. As a result, perhaps there have been a tinge of concern in the White House that a visit to his father’s homeland would reactivate this nonsense, once there were pictures with paternal relatives and interviews with family members. (Of course, Obama will never run for president again, so the birthers no longer count, despite any poison they may eventually mutter under their breath or in the danker parts of social media.) Regardless of any such concerns, the visit is now halfway over. Obama has made his way to the second leg of his East African visit, following a rather well-modulated Kenya visit, that managed to make all the necessary points.

In making the visit to Kenya, Obama received some domestic criticism — including pressure from human rights, gender and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersexed (LGBTI) nongovernmantal organistions and activists — that he must address human rights abuses, corruption, gender discrimination, and legalised discrimination against gays in Kenya, even as his hosts would have been warning him to stay away from any explicit discussions on those very topics. Surely, they would have said there was enough to talk about, what with Somalia and terror, development issues, international financing of development, and how best to encourage growth in trade, all without dealing with the list of culturally and politically touchy topics. The Obama administration largely declined to dodge those more prickly topics and addressed them directly, along with the more usual bromides about trade, development, security and other verities, especially as part a large set-piece speech before thousands of cheering Kenyans.

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by J Brooks Spector

Photo Credit: Flickr/US Army Africa

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