Obama's Roots A Source Of Pride — And Discord — In Kenya | KUOW News and Information

Obama's Roots A Source Of Pride — And Discord — In Kenya

Jul 24, 2015
Originally published on July 24, 2015 3:05 pm

The billboard that President Obama will see when he exits the airport in Nairobi on Friday says: "Welcome Home, Mr. President."

Obama's Kenyan roots have been a source of pride, but at times a source of discord, too, in the land of his father's birth.

For example, when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency in 2008, Kenyans were ecstatic. His victory was declared a national holiday.

But by the time of his re-election in 2012, Kenyan audiences celebrated him less as the son of a nation than as the son of a particular ethnic group.

"There were a section of Kenyans who celebrated, others who cursed and mourned, seeing Obama as a Luo," says Caleb Atemi, a Nairobi-based media consultant.

That perception played into a leadership battle between Kenya's two dominant tribes.

2012 was the run-up to an election year in Kenya. On one side was Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo like Obama's father, Barack Senior. On the other was Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president and a Kikuyu.

The polls were neck and neck. One month before the election, in February 2013, Johnnie Carson, then Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said:

"We as the United States do not have a candidate nor a choice in this election process. But ... choices have consequences."

"Choices have consequences" referred to charges against Kenyatta in the International Criminal Court — that he'd orchestrated violence during the last election, in 2007.

Obuya Bagaka, a professor at Nairobi's Kenya School of Government, says the phrase marked a pivot in U.S.-Kenya relations. Kenyatta's campaign went on the offensive and spun it as an attempt by America to meddle in African politics. Obama was cast as favoring a particular candidate.

Many observers at the time thought that the U.S. did seem to be favoring one candidate — the one who wasn't accused of war crimes. Obama's Kenyan roots became an issue. Carson's words were spun in Kenya as evidence of the American president's ethnic favoritism. And there was a backlash by Kenyan voters. Uhuru Kenyatta squeaked by with a victory.

As president, Kenyatta made a point of courting China with a "Turning East" policy. President Obama flew over Kenya on his July 2013 Africa trip, but did not land. Relations between the U.S. and Kenya took a hit.

Then, in September 2013, Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall was attacked by the Islamist group Al Shabaab. President Obama called President Kenyatta to offer support. U.S. aid to Kenya's military skyrocketed.

The two countries' trade relationship also improved. Kenyatta was a guest at the U.S.-African Leaders Summit, convened by the White House last summer. And Friday, President Obama will make good on his 2013 promise to visit Kenya before the end of his term.

Of course, one could have started this history even earlier, with the bad blood between Obama's father and Kenyatta's father.

Obama's father, Barack Senior, had public disagreements with Kenyatta's father, Jomo Kenyatta, the first Kenyan president. It was seen as a political dispute exacerbated by their ethnic differences.

Or one could go back to the scholarship Barack Senior was awarded in 1959 to study economics in the United States, where he would leave behind a son in Hawaii who would grow up to become president — the first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya.

Homecomings are complicated.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When President Obama exits the airport in Nairobi, Kenya today, he will see a prominent billboard. It reads, welcome home, Mr. President. This is the country where Obama's father was born, and the president's Kenyan roots have been a source of pride. What you might not know is that Obama's ties to Kenya have also inflamed the ethnic politics of the country. Here's NPR's Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Barack Obama won the election in 2008, his victory was declared a national holiday in Kenya. Caleb Atemi was leading a karate conference on the Kenyan coast. He's a media analyst and a martial artist. So he was trying to abstain from alcohol.

CALEB ATEMI: (Laughter) I took a few glasses of wine.

WARNER: But when Obama won his re-election in 2012, Kenyan audiences no longer saw him as son of a nation, but the son of a particular ethnic group - the Luo.

ATEMI: Actually, when Obama was re-elected, there are a section of Kenyans who celebrated, others who cursed and moaned. They see Obama as a Luo.

WARNER: And that perception played into a leadership battle between the nation's two dominant tribes. 2012 was the run-up to an election year in Kenya. On one side, Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo like Obama's father, on the other, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president and an ethnic Kikuyu. The polls were neck and neck. But one month before the election - February 2013 - Obama's then Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said this in a telepress conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNIE CARSON: We, as the United States, do not have a candidate nor a choice in this election process. But as I just said, choices have consequences.

WARNER: Choices have consequences referred to charges against the candidate Kenyatta in the International Criminal Court that he'd orchestrated violence in the last election. But Obuya Bagaka, a professor at the Kenya School of Government, says the phrase was a pivot in U.S.-Kenyan relations. Kenyatta's campaign went on the offensive and spun it as an attempt by the USA to muddle in African politics.

OBUYA BAGAKA: The notion that Obama himself was favoring a particular candidate.

WARNER: Now, America did seem to many observers to be favoring one candidate - favoring the candidate who was not accused of war crimes. But Obama's Kenyan roots were his weak spot. His choice - if that's what it was - was cast as ethnic favoritism, and there was a backlash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uhuru Kenyatta is Kenya's new president thanks to 50.07 percent of the vote.

WARNER: The new president, Kenyatta, courted China with his Turning East policy. President Obama flew by Kenya on his Africa trip. Relations were chilly until...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

WARNER: ...When Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi was attacked by Islamist group al-Shabab. President Obama called President Kenyatta to offer support. U.S. funding to Kenya's military would skyrocket. Kemoli Sagala is a political scientist.

KEMOLI SAGALA: The United States needs Kenya more than Kenya needs the United States when it comes to the war on terror.

WARNER: And that military and trade relationship is stronger today. But maybe we could've started this timeline even earlier, before Obama's election, with the bad blood between Obama's father and Kenyatta's father, the first Kenyan president - or with that scholarship that Barack Senior took in 1959 to study economics in the United States, leaving his son in Hawaii.

SAGALA: And the son is the president of the United States, the first American president in office to visit Kenya. I think, to me, that is the circle is now being completed.

GREENE: Homecomings are complicated. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.