President Barack Obama arrived Friday in Kenya, the ancestral homeland that has waited impatiently for a visit from the U.S. president since he was first elected to office.
Air Force One touched down just after 8 p.m. local time, with Kenyan TV stations carrying every minute of his arrival live. In downtown Nairobi, hundreds lined the streets, cheering and shouting as the presidential motorcade roared past.
Obama’s father was born here in 1936 and died in 1982, and Obama is widely viewed as a son of Kenya. Children here are named for him – in Swahili his first name means “blessing” – as are schools and businesses. A popular brand of beer, Senator, became better known as “Obama.”
“There’s huge, runaway expectations in Kenya about this trip, and huge excitement,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The main highway from the airport to Nairobi was lined Friday with U.S. and Kenyan flags. Billboards along the road hail the presidential visit. One by a general contractor says, “Relax Mr. President. We’ll build you a Kenyan home for free!”
Near the city center, a giant billboard features pictures of Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who greeted Obama at the airport. #Obamareturns was trending on Twitter in Nairobi.
There were few flourishes at the airport, though an 8-year-old, Joan Wamaitha, presented Obama with a bouquet of flowers and a curtsy as he bounded down the steps of the plane. He hugged Kenyatta, embraced his half-sister, Auma Obama, and signed a guest book.
Later at his hotel, Obama had dinner with about three dozen members of his extended family, including his half-sister and his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, whom he calls Granny.
He’s traveled here three times before but never as president.
Obama first came to Kenya in 1987 to trace his father’s story and to meet his Kenyan family. He returned in 1992 with Michelle Obama, taking her to the village where his father was born. They returned in 2006, when the recently elected U.S. senator was greeted more like a sports legend or a rock star, with thousands lining the streets he traveled, hoping for a glimpse.
But a trip as president had been put on hold for reasons foreign and domestic. Chiefly: a cloud over Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had faced charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly stoking violence during his 2007 election. But Kenyatta attended a White House summit on Africa last August, and the International Criminal Court in December withdrew the charges. Deputy President William Ruto is still facing crimes against humanity at the ICC, but the White House said Obama has “no plans for any separate engagements” with him.
There also may have been a reluctance in the first term to feed the conspiracy theorists who refuse to believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, not in Kenya.
After the trip was announced in March, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu suggested Obama was “inciting” the passions of the so-called birthers.
“I think his trip back to Kenya is going to create a lot of chatter and commentary amongst some of the hard right who still don’t see him as having been born in the U.S.,” the Republican said on Fox News. “I personally think he’s just inciting some chatter on an issue that should have been a dead issue a long time ago.”
National Security Adviser Susan Rice downplayed the role of the criminal court charges in particular and said the “real hook” for Obama’s visit at this time is Kenya’s role as host of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a White House initiative emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurship for development.
Obama will speak at the summit on Saturday.
“Africa is a place of incredible dynamism, some of the fastest growing markets in the world, extraordinary people, extraordinary resilience, and it has the potential to be the next center of global economic growth,” Obama said Wednesday at the White House.
Kenyans have been pressing Obama to visit the country since he took office. In a June 2010 interview with Kenyan broadcaster NTV, the reporter said he was asking the question “everyone was waiting for: When will the president visit Kenya?”
Obama said then he was positive that he’d make it to the country before leaving office, but he cited the weakened global economy and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as factors keeping him at home.
He noted, however that Vice President Joe Biden planned to stop in Kenya en route to the World Cup in South Africa.
Beyond impatience that Obama hasn’t visited, there’s been frustration that despite his ties, Obama has not made the continent a priority.
In his first term, Obama spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa, stopping in Ghana on his way back from Europe in July 2009. He has stepped up travel in his second term: In 2013, he traveled to Senegal and Tanzania and twice to South Africa.
Obama said in South Africa that he was pleased recent Kenyan elections had gone off without the violence seen in 2007. Still, he suggested that with Kenya then still involved with the International Criminal Court, it was not “the optimal time for me to visit.”
Obama also will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia.
Overall, his trip represents a departure from past presidential visits to the continent, which have typically been limited to “safe-bet” countries with a proven record on democracy and governance, said Witney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Kenya is one of the fastest growing economies on the continent with a booming middle class. But the U.S. has serious concerns about deeply entrenched corruption in its government.
Ethiopia’s authoritarian government has been sharply criticized for its handling of political opposition and for jailing journalists.
The trip falls in line with Obama’s interest in working with countries with whom the U.S. has important security and economic interests, but also major differences, Schneidman said.
“There are definitely going to be critics who will criticize his visit to these two countries, but I think it’s frankly way overdue and a sign of a new opening of sorts to the continent,” he said.
Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called on Obama to press for human rights reform in both countries, criticizing their governments for using the threat posed by the Somalia-based terrorist group, al Shabaab, to blunt opposition.
“Both countries face real security threats, but we are concerned by the way in which each government has responded, often with abusive security measures and increased efforts to stifle civil society and independent media,” the groups wrote in a letter to Obama.