Why most Americans were not bothered by leader’s Kenya visit

By: SAMUEL OLLUNGA

The reception Barack Obama got on his maiden presidential visit to Kenya was unparalleled.

Not because of the exquisite pageantry Kenya rolled out — and that was a sight to behold.

But rather on account of the heartfelt joy that marked the occasion.

He was treated like a long-lost true son of the land.

His emergence from Air Force One burst the bubble of longing and ushered in the long-awaited homecoming.

No other guest of the nation has inspired more goodwill and exuberance.

Not even the iconic Nelson Mandela, Africa’s greatest son.

A deep sense of belonging must have guided the American president’s pilgrimage to Kenya, a need to rest the ghosts of his long-raging identity crisis.

We know what Kenyans thought of Mr Obama’s visit.

But what did Americans think of the trip?

On social media, there were some Americans who delighted in his trip to his father’s homeland.

They remained supportive of the visit.

Then there were others who were cynical; they questioned the ‘‘waste’’ of US taxpayers’ money on such a ‘‘pampered’’ crusade.

There was another group of Americans who doubled down on the conspiracy theory that Mr Obama was, in fact, visiting the country of his birth — and perhaps, in search of his birth certificate!

However, to be honest, on the whole, most Americans thought nothing much of the tour.

Few could be bothered. Some even had no clue that Mr Obama visited Kenya and Ethiopia or had even been out of the country!

US VIEWERSHIP

In a calculated effort to ensure many Americans had at least the opportunity to watch the tour, it is said Mr Obama’s speeches were scheduled to coincide, as best as practicable, with prime US viewership allocations.

But even that did not kindle a lot of interest among Americans.

Was this ‘‘lethargy’’ spurred by a case of ignorance is bliss? Nay.

Then why was President Obama’s visit to Kenya greeted with some ambivalence in the US?

There are several reasons. Mr Obama’s presidential approval ratings are the best in two years.

In addition, he is coming off the best month of his whirlwind presidency. He is, therefore, awash with goodwill.

The ongoing presidential campaigns have shifted the spotlight to the search for the next US leader.

As a result, Mr Obama is fast becoming yesterday’s news in the US.

Suffice it here to merely add that the Iran nuclear deal has lent Republican presidential candidates a large axe to grind.

It has further afforded them plenty of wood to chop and fire up their campaigns to gain the much-needed political mileage.

Then there is ‘The Donald’. Yes, Trump — “The Apprentice” mogul. He is all over American news these days.

Kenya is a wonderful country. However, for it to register on the radar of everyday Americans, it would have to be party to an event of tectonic US relevance, with a direct bearing on their lives or their emotions.

In the main, however, America’s ambivalence to Mr Obama’s trip has more to do with the country’s foundation.

The universe that is the US does not revolve around the president.

The life force of the country is liberty, a truism considered inalienable and self-evident.

This equates to choice. Choice equates to individual freedom. Individual freedom equates to the right to singularly engage in the “pursuit of happiness”.

Choice flourishes in a culture of institutional gravity.

That is why the architecture of the notion of government and governance as drawn by America’s founding fathers can be summed up by the erstwhile James Madison, who opined in The Federalist Paper No. 51 that the executive, the legislature and the judiciary should check each other “in a harmonious cycle of mutual frustration”.

In the strictest sense, the US presidency is, therefore, an institution.

The office bearer, at any given time, is relevant, but not defining.

Thus, sheltered in the fort of the constitutionally reinforced axiomatic truth of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, everyday Americans go about their nation-building and individual wealth-creation efforts with a lightness of heart and knowledge that regardless of where the president is at any one moment, the business of governance is under control.

In many African countries, the institution of the presidency, including its boundaries within the constitutional framework, is all but edifice. The dictator is a law unto himself.

Holding the distinction of being the first US president to address the African Union, Mr Obama must have detected symptoms of the big-man syndrome bloating around the room.

He lambasted some African presidents, including Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, who have gone to the extent of changing their countries’ constitutions to extend their rule and stranglehold on their respective nations.

His assertions laid into heads of state who were both the president and the institution itself, and even more.

Poignant was Mr Obama’s statement that when a leader says he or she is “the only person who can hold (their) nation together … then the leader has failed to truly build their nation”.

Examples of constitutional gerrymandering on the continent abound.

The touchstone of history, a new century and its sophisticated new-age global ways have not been much of a deterrence.

Rwanda, for instance, is currently trying to amend its constitution to hand President Paul Kagame a new term.

It would appear some of these leaders have, by their short-sighted selfishness, spat in the face of history and led their countries to strife.

Despite the footnote that is the 2007 presidential election, Kenya is farther on the journey towards fostering enduring institutions.

Indeed, the country has come a long way since the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi days, when the president seemed to own and lease the trademark of the country’s identity.

DEMYSTIFYING PRESIDENCY

Former President Mwai Kibaki’s laid-back mien was cathartic in weaning the country off this culture.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, Mr William Ruto, have further aided in demystifying the presidency without besmirching the institution.

However, despite devolution slowly taking root, the universe that is Kenya still revolves around the presidency.

The underlying ethnic calculus and jostling by Kenyan communities for one of their own to occupy the hallowed seat still keeps the country enchanted by the office.

A mind-set of scarcity and a political culture of one-upmanship, borne from the original sin of the country, ethnicity, holds sway.

I wish we could have a time when Kenyans of all ages, from all parts of the country and all walks of life find themselves deeply anchored in the safety of functioning and unfailing institutions.

This will be a time when they will have the luxury to be ‘‘ignorant’’ of the day-to-day movements of the head of state, as they immerse themselves in the efforts of nation building and individual wealth creation.