On June 3rd, 2008, on the last day of the primary season, then-Senator Barack Obama officially wrapped up the Democratic nomination for President by giving a stirring speech pivoting towards the general election in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That day, I happened to be in Kenya, home of Obama’s paternal family, and a place where I spent three years of my childhood (my father is in the State Department). Kenyans rejoiced; the local paper devoted an 18-page spread to his nomination, and Kikuyu and Luo tribesmen who, months before engaged in election-related violence that left 800 dead, united behind their common love of Obama.
Because of his background and story, President Obama could have played a key role in transforming Africa. But three years after his inauguration, he has instead veered away from embracing his father’s home continent.
As historic as Obama’s election was in America, it might have been even more so in his father’s native land. Kenyans, and Africans at large, put the weight of a continent’s expectations on the new president’s shoulders, presuming his election would improve their material lot, making their power work and their crops grow. Kenyan members of parliament even called for a rural airport to be upgraded so that Air Force One would be able to land there.
But three years later, Obama has, rather stridently, moved away from his Africa roots. Part of this separation is symbolic: While Obama frequently uses speeches to harken back to his mother and her parents (talking about their Kansas roots and his grandfather’s military service), he never talks anymore about his father’s Kenyan heritage, despite the fact that his entire first book was based on that premise (Dreams From My Father).
From a practical perspective, he has only visited the continent only once (a trip to Ghana, on the tail end of a trip to Russia). Before a 2010 referendum on a new Kenyan constitution, the President promised to visit Kenya while he was still in office. It is now apparent that will only happen if he is re-elected.
Obama’s actual policies in Africa have essentially followed those of his predecessor. This is actually a good thing. Perhaps one of George W. Bush’s only positive legacies is his work in Africa, where he started the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), pledged millions in aid to combat malaria and other diseases, and undertook effective diplomatic offensives in countries ranging from South Sudan to Kenya. Bush remains incredibly popular throughout the continent.
In his defense, Obama has allocated significant aid to Africa, provided diplomatic offensives when needed (helping to ensure South Sudan’s successful independence, for example), and even taking out a brutal dictator in Libya. But he has not been transformational.
If Obama were to touch base in Kenya right now, the scene, and impact, would probably be similar to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup in 2010. Hundreds of thousands would come to hear him speak in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The world would be forced to notice the immense disparity in income as he visited the Kibera slum. After the President traveling to South Africa and denouncing the regime’s HIV/AIDS policy and response towards the crisis in Zimbabwe, President Jacob Zuma would be forced to change course, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. And a safari trip to the Serengeti with the First Lady and his daughters would bring millions of tourism revenue into Tanzania.
This trip will not happen. Instead, Obama has sacrificed potential transformation for political expediency. He does not want the image of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans embracing him on the front page of the papers, when more than 15% of the American population still thinks he is an African Muslim. He does not want Republicans criticizing him for wasting attention on Africa while unemployment persists above 8% at home. He does not want to lose any votes at home when Africa is not a politically salient issue.
I am a proud Democrat and an ardent Obama supporter. But I wish the President had seized the unique opportunity he had to make a huge difference to people throughout the African continent. Instead, Kenya’s favorite son has become estranged from his father’s homeland because of politics.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army Africa