NAIROBI — When Anna Mulli heard that President Obama was planning to visit Africa, she expected him to visit her homeland. Like many of her countrymen, she considers the president a son of Kenya. Obama’s father was Kenyan; many of his relatives, including his grandmother, still live here. During the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential elections, Mulli said, she went to church to pray that Obama would win.
“But now he has neglected us,” said Mulli, sighing with disappointment as she entered a downtown Nairobi church for Sunday Mass.
As Obama embarks this week on his first substantial visit to Africa, Kenyans are venting anger and frustration — on social media, in newspaper editorials, on the streets — that their nation is not on his itinerary. Many had long expected Obama to pay a visit to his father’s ancestral home and allow Kenyans to embrace him, just like the Irish did during his emotional 2011 trip to Ireland, from where his mother’s ancestors hailed. Instead, Obama will visit Senegal, South Africa and neighboring Tanzania, whose capital, Dar es Salaam, is less than an hour’s flight from Nairobi.
“Just come and visit your grandma, Obama!” implored the headline of a blog post on the local radio station Capital FM’s Web site.
Beneath the surface, the presidential snub, as many Kenyans describe it, has spawned soul-searching over their choice of leadership and whether their nation is still the main U.S. ally in East Africa. Some even fear that the snub could make it more difficult for Kenya to attract foreign investment and tourists, dealing a blow to the nation’s economy.
Many Kenyans say the United States is punishing them for electing President Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice president, William Ruto, in March. The International Criminal Court has charged both men with orchestrating ethnic mobs to kill and pillage in the aftermath of the 2007 elections; they are set to face trial at The Hague for alleged crimes against humanity. During the run-up to this year’s elections, then-assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson publicly warned Kenyans that “choices have consequences.”
Last week, deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes said that the “Kenyan people hold a special place in the president’s heart” and that the United States would work with Kenyatta. But Rhodes also made clear that the ICC charges were a concern. “It just wasn’t the best time for the president to travel to Kenya,” he told reporters in Washington.
Obama would not be the first Western leader reluctant to meet Kenyatta and Ruto. Last month, at a London meeting to assist Somalia, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to be photographed with Kenyatta, according to British news reports, apparently fearing a backlash if the Kenyan leader was found guilty of the ICC charges.
In interviews, some Kenyans said that despite their disappointment, they understood why Obama is skipping their country on this visit. “I really wished he would have come to Kenya, to his roots,” said Sam Ombeki, 55, a community development organizer. “But let’s not pretend, either. There are a lot of questions about the integrity of our leadership. Obama doesn’t want to taint his name.”
Other Kenyans said that the White House has overblown the ICC issue and that Obama should respect that Kenyatta and Ruto were legitimately elected. “The Hague case is just an excuse not to come,” Mulli said. “They are only suspects who are innocent until proven guilty. If they were guilty of such crimes, would we have elected them? Nobody would blame Obama if he visited Kenya.”
In his book “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama speaks fondly of Kenya and his meetings with relatives. He last visited the country when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, millions of Kenyans celebrated his victory, staying up until the early hours of dawn to watch the results.
But Kenyans’ enthusiasm for Obama was more muted during last year’s U.S. election. He had visited the continent only once: for 20 hours in Ghana, where he delivered a memorable speech about his vision for Africa and how his administration would engage with the continent. But many Kenyans, as well as other Africans, say Obama has not been a strong advocate for addressing Africa’s problems, unlike his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“It is a bit of a disappointment,” said Kevin Otako, 31, a management consultant. “He is one of our own. I thought his presidency would bring more investments. So far, that hasn’t happened.”
In the United States, some policy analysts suggested that the “birther movement” of tea party conservatives — who spent a good deal of time during his first term questioning whether Obama was actually born in the United States — might have constrained him in his dealings with Kenya and the rest of Africa.
After a White House briefing on the trip last week, a Yahoo! News article began by announcing that Obama would not be visiting Kenya, “the country of his birth.” The story was later corrected, but it prompted widespread outrage, considering the lengths that the president has gone to prove he was born in Hawaii.
Still, it is quite common to see cars here plastered with Obama campaign bumper stickers. Bars, eateries and barbershops are named after Obama, and little boys are named Barack.
The visit to Tanzania has, in particular, hit a nerve with Kenyans.
“Tanzania is now poised to replace Kenya as the indispensable state in East Africa,” Makau Mutua, chairman of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, wrote in an op-ed in the local Sunday Nation paper. He added: “Expect investors to skip over Kenya and flock to Tanzania.”