In Summary
  • The visit is expected to command considerable global attention.
  • Mr Obama’s Kenyan roots have been the subject of fascination.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya — the first by a sitting US President since independence — could help boost efforts to position the country as an investment, diplomatic and political “gateway to Africa” although analysts warn that more needs to be done to reap benefits from the historic trip.

President Obama is expected in Nairobi from July 24 to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a White House initiative which gathers entrepreneurs and investors from around the world and is aimed at showcasing innovative projects and spurring economic opportunity.

The visit is expected to command considerable global attention, including from a travelling party of more than 300 journalists, because of its huge symbolic importance.

Mr Obama is the son of Kenyan Barack Obama Sr, who travelled to America to attend Harvard University in 1959. Mr Obama Sr married an American, Ms Ann Dunham, two years later and they had a son who would go on to be the first black President of the United States.

Mr Obama’s Kenyan roots have been the subject of fascination — and some controversy among conspiracy theorists who argue he was unqualified to run for President, with some claiming he was born in Kenya. His visit to East Africa, which will also take him to neighbouring Ethiopia, will be one of his most closely watched foreign trips.

While the trip will have emotional importance to Mr Obama, who first visited Kenya as a young graduate in his 20s to trace his roots and later arrived in Nairobi when he was elected senator, the visit will also be of huge importance to Kenya.

For 48 hours, the country will be in the shop window of the world, with 1,500 delegates expected at the entrepreneurship summit and millions others following the event from across Africa and beyond.   

“This is big,” says Prof Joseph Kieyah of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy, Research and Analysis. “The symbolic value of the trip is huge and the eyes of the world will be on Kenya. The Americans will have prepared for this for more than a year and will know exactly what they want. The question is whether we, Kenyans, will know how to make maximum use of such a rare opportunity.”

Although Kenya has historically been one of America’s strongest allies in Africa, it has never received a presidential visit from Washington.

The first two sitting presidents to visit sub-Saharan Africa — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter — travelled to West Africa, while President George H.W. Bush only made a brief visit to Somalia to witness the US troops humanitarian mission in the country in January 1993.

President Clinton was the first to make an extensive visit to Africa in 1998 and 2000, but he restricted his tour to countries seen as part of the “African Renaissance” at the time including Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, Nigeria and Tanzania.

President George W. Bush likewise skipped Kenya on his visits and opted to travel to neighbouring Tanzania. And to the disappointment of many Kenyans, President Obama also avoided Kenya on his previous trips to the continent.

POLITICALLY FEASABLE

That was partly due to the International Criminal Court indictment which was hanging over President Uhuru Kenyatta’s head. But with the case dropped, President Obama seems to have assessed that a trip to the country is politically feasible.

The fact that he will not run for re-election and is, therefore, no longer worried about the conspiracy theorists, also undoubtedly played into his calculus.

The Nairobi trip will be seen as clinching the reconciliation process between the Kenyan Government and the West, whose relations were placed in a hostile position during the election campaigns and worsened following Mr Kenyatta’s post-election onslaught on Kenya’s old European and American allies.

According to a briefing on the White House website written by two national security aides to Mr Obama, Grant Harris and Shannon Green, the trip will be of considerable importance.

“Just as President Kennedy’s historic visit to Ireland in 1963 celebrated the connections between Irish-Americans and their forefathers, President Obama’s trip will honour the strong historical ties between the United States and Kenya — and all of Africa — from the millions of Americans who trace their ancestry to Africa.”

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