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.
‘Doesn’t want to taint his name’
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.”