Tag: Barack Obama

Obama in Kenya: What’s on the agenda

US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama. (Pic: Reuters)

US President Barack Obama arrives in Kenya on Friday for a weekend visit that will include talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

On the agenda are trade and investment, security and counter-terrorism, and democracy and human rights.

Here are the issues in detail:


Obama is officially in Kenya to address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which Kenyatta has said will highlight the “progress and potential” of the country.

A string of deals are due to be signed on Friday, hours before Obama arrives, including on infrastructure and health investment. Boosting trade and investment will be a key focus of bilateral talks on Saturday, with the US now Kenya’s second biggest trading partner, after the European Union.

But Kenya’s reputation for deep and wide corruption is a concern for the US as it seeks to encourage further foreign investment, with Transparency International ranking Kenya 145 out of 175 on its corruption index.


Security and counter-terrorism will be “central” to talks with Obama, Kenyatta has said, with Nairobi “working in very close cooperation with American agencies” to combat the threat of violent extremism, especially from Shebab, a Somali-led Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Kenya and Islamic extremism have been entwined since 1998 when Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi.

Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in 2011 to fight Shebab and later joined the African Union force, AMISOM, which is supporting Somalia’s internationally-backed government.

The Shebab have since stepped up their operations in Kenya, dealing a blow to plans for the troops to serve as a buffer and protect the long, porous border.

US drone strikes have targeted Shebab commanders including its former leader who was killed in September.


Democracy and civil society will also be discussed, with US officials saying that promotion of human rights and the rule of law will be key.

Kenya placed two high-profile Muslim rights groups on a list accused of supporting the terrorism, following the Shebab massacre in April of 148 people at Garissa university.

Obama is expected to meet with representatives of both the targeted Muslim organisations during his visit.

Obama’s backing of the US legalisation of same-sex marriage has angered some Kenyans. Obama’s support for gay rights, voiced in Senegal during his 2013 Africa tour, was not welcomed in much of Africa.

Kenyatta has said gay rights is a “non-issue… and it is definitely not on our agenda at all.” But for the US, gay rights are human rights. In an interview before leaving Washington on Thursday Obama told the BBC, “I am not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, on the basis of religion, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.”


Kenya insists Obama will meet with Deputy President William Ruto who is on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity relating to violence that swept Kenya after the 2007 election. Obama’s Kenya visit was long-delayed by Kenyatta’s own indictment by the ICC.

His case was suspended last year — in part, prosecutors say, because witnesses were bribed, intimidated or killed — clearing the way for Obama’s trip.

The issue of the lack of justice for the many victims of the 2007-08 violence is likely to be raised: no prosecutions have yet been brought against any of the suspected perpetrators.

What can Kenyans expect from Obama’s visit?

Newspapers bearing headlines on US President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Kenya. (Pic: AFP)
Newspapers bearing headlines on US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya. (Pic: AFP)

From a Kenyan perspective, the last decade has pretty much been a wasted opportunity for the country’s relationship with the United States. The election of Barack Obama had raised hopes of a deeper and more meaningful engagement given his Kenyan roots. However, it coincided with two seminal events of Kenyan presidential ballot history. This was the violence that followed the disputed vote in 2008 and, five years later, the election of a crimes against humanity indictee to the highest office in the land.

Like Mwai Kibaki before him, President Uhuru Kenyatta came to office with a serious legitimacy deficit. His administration too is hobbled by corruption and has been accused of clamping down on civic freedoms. Coupled with Obama’s own troubles at home, as a loony fringe loudly questioned whether he was sufficiently American, these, inevitably created a regrettable distance between the two countries. The situation was perhaps best summed up in then Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson’s statement on the eve of the 2013 election: “choices have consequences”.

The UK also issued similar warnings of minimal contacts should Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, both of whom had been indicted by the International Criminal Court over the 2008 post-election violence, win the polls. Though these eventually turned out to be hollow, the perceptions of Western interference supercharged the duo’s campaign and helped get them elected.

Once in office, as part of their push to get their cases dropped, UhuRuto (as they became known) fanned anti-Western sentiment both at home and across the continent, painting the ICC, in the words of Uhuru’s address to the African Union, as a “toy of declining imperial powers”, and playing up the new engagement with China as a counterweight to the West.

Obama too was keen to keep his distance. Following the example of his immediate predecessors, he made a point of skipping Kenya on the two African tours of his first term. If anything, it appeared that Tanzania, which is getting rather used to US presidential visits having hosted Bill Clinton, George Bush and Obama, seemed to be the US’s new BFF in the region.

One would thus have imagined that relations with the US had settled into the back of the freezer for the foreseeable future. It was all so different from 2008 when Kenya had been the only country in the world to declare a public holiday in celebration of Obama’s election.

So what changed?

Terrorism for one. Kenya has been a target of attacks from the Somalia-based al-Shabab terror group ever since it invaded its neighbour in October 2011. But under the Uhuru administration, the numbers and severity of attacks have skyrocketed. The government’s incompetent response has generated the possibility of a spreading Islamist-inspired insurgency across Kenya’s north-eastern border regions. The threat to the largest economy in East and Central Africa and a bulwark for regional stability simply could not be ignored. Perhaps Obama is betting that by re-engaging with Uhuru, he can gently nudge him to take the necessary measures to confront it.

Secondly, it is important to note that the anti-Western rhetoric was always little more than a charade. The aim was to discredit the ICC, not alienate the West. It was not about taking Obama on, but getting Uhuru off. Under the surface, admiration for Obama ran deep. The two modelled their campaign and atmospherics on him, and across the country, as reflected in a 2014 Pew survey, Obama remains popular.

What are we to expect of the visit?

While the official reason Obama is coming is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, there is little doubt that behind the scenes, it will be dominated by concerns over the worsening security and governance situation. Less than a week before Obama’s arrival, the reopening of the Westgate mall, scene of an al-Shabab massacre of at least 67 people two years ago, will be presented as a sign of resilience in the face of terrorism. But it also stands as a monument to the refusal by the authorities to learn lessons from previous attacks and to make much-needed improvements. Obama himself has said that counter-terrorism will be an important focus of the visit. And while he will probably be more restrained when criticising his hosts in public than he was during his visit as Senator in 2006, one would still expect some tough talking away from the cameras.

The Kenyan government will also probably be on its best behaviour. It is best to ignore the loopy-headed warnings of Obama being thrown out of Parliament if he mentions gay marriage – he is not even scheduled to address MPs. Ditto the mooted 5000-strong nude march to protest the issue.

Nairobi is being spruced up in anticipation of the visit but that will be cold comfort for its long suffering residents. The homeless are being rounded up and will be kept out of sight and with much of the city expected to be in virtual lockdown, the usually terrible traffic will be nightmarish. In fact there is talk of an “Obamigration” as those who can flee the city in advance of Obama’s arrival.

The visit will also be a boon to the country’s cops. A new directive of dubious legality requires that everyone in Nairobi carry ID or risk arrest. There is no law in Kenya that requires the carrying of documents on pain of detention and this will only create an avenue for rich pickings for 15000 members of the famously corrupt National Police Service as citizens try to avoid the prospect of a weekend behind bars.

The real test of the visit will be what happens after he leaves. Will there be any lasting change? It will be particularly interesting to see whether Obama is able to persuade Kenyatta to take security seriously and to stop using it as an excuse to clamp down on civil rights. Movement on that front alone would make all the hassle worthwhile.

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist. To read more of Patrick’s opinion pieces visit his blog, Gathara’s World or follow him on Twitter: @gathara

Kenyan protesters warn Obama against bringing up gay rights during visit

Kenyan anti-gay protesters marched in Nairobi on Monday, warning US President Barack Obama not to speak about gay rights when he visits the country of his ancestors later this month.

“We do not want Obama and Obama, we do not want Michelle and Michelle,” they chanted. “We want Obama and Michelle and we want a child!”

Kenyans, some of whom are members of a Christian lobby group, hold a protest against homosexuality in the capital Nairobi, on July 6, 2015, signalling to US President Barack Obama their opposition to gay rights ahead of his visit to Kenya. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyans, some of whom are members of a Christian lobby group, hold a protest against homosexuality in the Nairobi, on July 6, 2015, signalling to US President Barack Obama their opposition to gay rights ahead of his visit to Kenya. (Pic: AFP)

“It is important for us as Kenyans to know that the US is not God, and thus we cannot follow them blindly,” said protest organiser and evangelical Christian pastor Bishop Mark Kariuki.

Kariuki said Obama was welcome to visit “his father’s home” but should not “talk about the gay issue.”

The demonstration drew around 100 people, wearing T-shirts and waving posters with the slogan “Protect The Family”.

It came a day after Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague accused of crimes against humanity, told worshippers at a church service that homosexuality was “against the plan” of God.

“We have heard that in the US they have allowed gay relations and other dirty things,” Ruto said, according to the Daily Nation newspaper.

“I want to say as a Christian leader that we will defend our country Kenya, we will stand for our faith and our country.”

Afraid Obama ‘will preach equality’

Ruto made similar comments in May when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kenya.

Homophobia is prevalent in many African countries and gay sex remains illegal in several nations, including Kenya where it was outlawed under British colonial legislation.

The march Monday was organised by the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, a coalition of several churches.

Obama’s visit later this month will be his fourth to Africa since becoming US president, but his first to Kenya since taking office in 2009. He will also travel to Ethiopia.

Kenyan artist Dayan Masinde, displays a piece of his art in Nairobi on June 26, 2015 depicting US President, Barack Obama with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta sharing a local dish. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyan artist Dayan Masinde, displays a piece of his art in Nairobi on June 26, 2015 depicting US President, Barack Obama with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta sharing a local dish. (Pic: AFP)

Pro-gay rights activists warned of rising intolerance in Kenya, including attacks on homosexuals and alleged cases of lesbians being raped to “cure” them.

“The anti gay movement is spreading to Kenya… cases of discrimination and violence are increasing because of the very homophobic speeches,” said lawyer Erik Gitari, from the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

“Obama has been associated with equality and liberation, being the first black US president. They are afraid that he will preach equality here,” said Gitari.

In conservative Christian and Muslim countries in Africa, homophobia is a vote-winner.

In Uganda, legislators sought the death penalty for homosexuality and although the anti-gay law was watered down and then overturned, ruling party MPs remain eager to see it passed.

Nigeria and Gambia have passed tough new anti-gay laws in recent years, with Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, calling homosexuals “ungodly, Satanic… vermins [sic]” in a speech last year.

In Kenya, too, a cross-party parliamentary group is seeking stricter application of existing anti-gay legislation.


Kenyan lawyer offers livestock to wed Obama’s daughter

Malia (L) and Sasha Obama. (Pic: AFP)
Malia Obama (L) and Sasha Obama. (Pic: AFP)

A Kenyan lawyer has offered US president Barack Obama 50 cows and other assorted livestock in exchange for his 16-year-old daughter Malia’s hand in marriage, a report said on Tuesday.

Felix Kiprono said he was willing to pay 50 cows, 70 sheep and 30 goats in order to fulfil his dream of marrying the first daughter.

“I got interested in her in 2008,” Kiprono said, in an interview with The Nairobian newspaper.

At that time President Obama was running for office for the first time and Malia was a 10-year-old.

“As a matter of fact, I haven’t dated anyone since and promise to be faithful to her. I have shared this with my family and they are willing to help me raise the bride price,” he said.

Kiprono said he intended to put his offer of marriage to Obama and hopes the president will bring his daughter with him when he makes his first presidential visit to Kenya, the country where his father was born, in July.

Obama‘s Kenyan grandmother, who is in her early 90s, still lives in Kogelo, in western Kenya, home to a number of the president’s relatives.

“I am currently drafting a letter to Obama asking him to please have Malia accompany him for this trip. I hope the embassy will pass the letter to him,” he said.

Kiprono dismissed the notion he might be a gold-digger.

“People might say I am after the family’s money, which is not the case. My love is real,” he insisted.

The young lawyer, whose age was not revealed, said he had already planned his proposal, which would be made on a hill near his rural village, and the wedding at which champagne would be shunned in favour of a traditional sour milk called “mursik”.

Kiprono said that as a couple he and the young Obama would lead “a simple life”.

“I will teach Malia how to milk a cow, cook ugali (maize porridge) and prepare mursik like any other Kalenjin woman,” he said.

Me, Obama and Sarah Baartman in Istanbul

Despite my general disregard for Turkish Delights, Istanbul holds a special place in my heart. This is where I became two iconic black people: Sarah Baartman and Barack Obama – for a few minutes anyway.

I associate cities with books I have read about them. But when I think of Istanbul, it is not Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s novels; nor even the must-read Honour by Elif Shafak that comes to mind. I associate Istanbul with The Book of Chameleons, a novel by Angolan Jose Eduardo Agualusa. You see, this novel is about a man who trades in memories. His business card reads: “Felix Ventura – Guarantee your children a better past.”  His clients are well-heeled people whose futures are secure, but who lack a good past. So he sells them brand new pasts. He gives people saddled with disgraceful family trees or uninteresting childhood memories, a chance to photoshop their histories, complete with tangible evidence to support these new pasts. This is how one fellow gets a new set of illustrious grandparents resplendent with nobility— along with photographs of him spending memorable days at their lovely house.

Istanbul reminds me of this novel because, like Felix Ventura, Istanbul gave me two brand-new identities in 2011. I got to be watched and photographed like the enslaved black South African woman, Sarah Baartman, whose body was exhibited as an ‘exotic’ across  Europe. I also got to be Obama. But unlike Felix Ventura’s customers, my new identities came unprovoked, uninvited, on a prepaid contract – compliments of my blackness.

The day I became these two icons is the same day I first tasted roasted chestnuts. We were visiting the Aya Sofya museum, which embodies Istanbul’s popular image as ‘where East meets West.’ An architectural wonder when it was completed in 537AD as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, the building has over the centuries served as a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque, before becoming the museum it is now. Its architectural wonders aside, Aya Sofya’s interiors are a rich display of Turkey’s layered histories, as distinctive Islamic calligraphy rubs shoulders with stunning mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel.

So, outside Aya Sofya, my friend and I waited for the vendor to wrap our freshly roasted chestnuts, entry tickets already purchased. I enjoyed the familiar sounds of the Turkish greeting ‘Merhaba’, which could have come straight from Kiswahili; glowing with pride in our shared Arabic linguistic roots. I was at home.

There was a long queue of tourists, but I noticed a particularly excitable bunch of Turkish school children in uniform. I figured they were typically excited as students tend to be on school outings. I remembered my pure delight as a Grade 4 student about a class trip to our local museum, whose key attraction was its reptile collection and the requisite ‘Picasso-goes-native’ anthropological paintings of bare-breasted black women bravely bearing the burden of beads on their necks. So, I dismissed these teenagers’ laughter, jostling and their inability to stand in a queue as typical student excitement.

When you have never been an object of paparazzi interest, you don’t quickly make the link between flashing cameras and yourself. It took me a while to join the dots between the mini-stampede of flashing cameras and my face. Then I stood there transfixed, blankly scanning the queue, the nearby streets, my friend, the chestnut vendor, before I finally acknowledged the truth I had already registered, but suppressed: I was the only black person around. The second truth was harder to face: I was the cause of the students’ excitement. So much for our shared linguistic roots. To them, one of those women they only knew as paintings and pictures about Africa was standing right before their eyes. In the flesh. Munching roasted chestnuts. Sure, I was dressed wrong for the ‘peoples-of-Africa’ look of those paintings and postcards, but my blackness remained astonishing for this group of teenagers.

Snapping out of the shock, my friend and I literally ran into the Aya Sofya, school children and cameras in tow. And thus unfolded my ‘participant-observer’ tour of Aya Sofya Museum: playing Black Mampatile (hide-and-seek) with a bunch of Turkish students desperate to capture evidence of their close encounter with blackness for their Facebook friends. I was a bonus on their museum trip, an artifact to be watched and photographed, alongside the murals on the walls.  As I ducked into corners in the beautiful Museum, in-between nervous glances at its gorgeous paintings, while my friend ensured the students were safely out of sight before we could move to the next part of the museum, I remembered Sarah Baartman. I had read lots about her, most recently in Pumla Gqola’s book What is Slavery to me? But for the first time, I had a glimpse of what it must have felt like be a curiosity, to be ‘exotic,’ to be studied and photographed because you are different; to be assaulted with the giggling stares of teenagers’ cameras. Unlike her, I may have been a free woman, there on my own volition. Yet I remained helpless and humiliated. It wasn’t my favourite Kodak moment. But my day was about to get even better: an encounter as Obama awaited me at the Grand Bazaar market.

After sneaking out of the Aya Sofya church, my friend and I decided to visit the Grand Bazaar market, on a bargain hunt. As we explored the busy market, each pathway filled with throngs of shoppers and stall owners calling customers to their wares and haggling over the prices, one man’s voice rose above the din shouting ‘Obama! Obama! Obama!!’ This sounded odd to both my friend and I; and we simultaneously looked back to check who Obama was. ‘Yes! Obama!’ the man said, making eye-contact with me, and waving his hand, a wide smile on his face. Goodness?!  It was me! I was the Obama in question. And, by the smiles on many shoppers’ and vendors’ faces, I was the only one who didn’t realise that I was Obama.

I had followed the endless stream of media commentaries on what an Obama presidency meant for Kenya and Africa at large. But I had clearly missed the part about his name becoming the new shorthand for ‘black person’— at least at this market in Istanbul. I wondered whether to be flattered, amused or offended at this new ‘John Smith’ code for black folks. I smiled awkwardly and gave the man a little wave, hoping to shut him up with acknowledgment. As we squeezed through the crowds to leave the market, I wondered how this would play out in Turkish villages. Would I be followed by groups of children shouting ‘Obama! Obama!’? Would I need a souvenir T-shirt declaring ‘I am not Obama’ the way tourists to East Africa wore the ‘I am not Mzungu (white) T-shirt?

Fast-forward to April 2013. I am sharing a house with colleagues from different countries. One housemate, Salah from Iran, is a spitting image of Obama. His dress-sense, his graceful walk, his height, his salt-n-pepper hair, his skin-tone, right down to the smile. My friends and I remark to each other on this similarity. Salah shares my friends’ passion for Table Tennis, and they play regularly. One day, I tell him. “You know you look like Obama.” Ever graceful, he looks at me slowly, then asks: “is that a good thing?” Yho!? Who saw that one coming?  I mumble that I mean the nice Obama, not the one busy killing every audacious hope we ever invested in his presidency. My friends jokingly break the awkwardness: “Actually it is not such a bad thing. You could play Obama in a Hollywood movie about him. But do you play basketball? You will have to learn basketball for the movie.”

Salah laughs good-naturedly, then says “No. I play table tennis. Obama will have to learn table tennis so he can be more like me.”

Ek se! Give that man a Bells!, I think quietly to myself.  I suppose this is what they mean by thinking outside the box. Indeed, why shouldn’t Obama learn table tennis, in the hypothetical scenario of Salah playing him in a movie? See, sometimes the mountain must go to Mohammed.

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.