Obama – the Eagle Has Landed in Epic Homecoming [column]

“LARGER than life” has just been redefined with the arrival in Kenya of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.

President Obama is cohosting the Sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit with the Fourth President of Kenya, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, this morning.

Obama finally coming to Kenya as President is so extraordinary because it was almost never meant to happen. Indeed, a lot of very highly placed and well regarded people and institutions both in Kenya and overseas, including Washington, did their darnedest to try and prevent Obama from ever visiting Kenya and Kenyatta as President.

And when Obama decided it was time to come to his father’s birthplace the tactics changed. In the week of his arrival two former American envoys to Kenya and two of the world’s premier human rights watchdog organisations used the media and the Internet to say unsavoury and cautionary things about the Jubilee administration and its support base.

And then on Wednesday it was announced that two Coast-based rights organisations blacklisted by the government on allegations of supporting terrorism are expected to meet President Obama.

Muslims for Human Rights and Haki Africa will be among several civil society organizations that have been invited by US Ambassador Robert Godec to attend a meeting with Obama at Kenyatta University tomorrow. This was a flying kick in the teeth for the National Intelligence Service, on whose information the de-registration and freezing of accounts of these NGOs was based.

The evidence collected by NIS has clearly not impressed the CIA, assuming it was shared in the first place.

How the world has changed from the time Jomo Kenyatta was Founding President of Kenya and Barrack Obama Snr an erratic civil servant! The only affinity they had was their polygamous ways. No two men could have been more different.

Until quite recently, there would have been protocol hell to pay for ex-US envoys to Kenya Johnnie Carson and Mark Bellamy’s cautionary Op Ed in the New York Times, also published in full in Kenyan newspapers, including the Star.

As for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International writing to President Obama about the Jubilee Administration’s deficiencies in the human rights and media relations fields, that too would have had consequences.

These things are unprecedented, but everything depends on how President Kenyatta’s team at State House manages public perceptions. Responding in kind to ex-envoys Carson and Bellamy had better be done by experts.

Serial breaches of protocol

If the flurry of this week’s pre-Obama arrival activity looked to conservative Jubilee faithful like a serial breach of protocol, one thing is for sure: The US President’s homecoming will change President Kenyatta for good. Kenyans will one day talk of a pre-Obama and a post-Obama Kenyatta. For instance, if the CIA is right about the banned NGOs and the NIS is mistaken, and there is public proof of this, there will be new ways of dealing with surveillance on civil society in this country.

The Kenyatta administration has absorbed enormous criticism for the rampant corruption in Kenya. The most elegant, and also the most piercing, line came from President Obama himself at a White House press conference last week, “corruption … sometimes has held back that incredibly gifted and blessed country”.

Because the line came from Obama when he was practically Kenya-bound, “that incredibly gifted and blessed country” is on millions of Kenyan and non-Kenyan lips.

As soon as Obama departs on Sunday evening, Kenyatta must begin mulling radical changes in diplomacy, counterterrorism, anti-corruption and Intelligence policy.

As breaches of protocol go, none was more stunning than that of the Kenyan airline official who leaked Obama’s trip itinerary. According to Fox News reporter Paul Tisley, “the national airline of Kenya, where President Obama will visit later this week, published the arrival and departure times of Air Force One, prompting scrambling by White House security officials.

“A Kenyan Airways official sent an e-mail blast with the expected time of arrival and departure of the presidential plane in Nairobi, even though it’s standard White House practice never to publish the 40-to-50-minute window during which Air Force One is scheduled to land or take off. And safeguards are enhanced when the president visits a location which could pose added danger, as is the case in Kenya, where the State Department has issued a travel alert and warned that the summit on entrepreneurship Obama is attending is a likely terrorist target”.

Believe it or not, there are other presidents in town

The US President has a footprint that is larger by far than those of other leaders, even combined, as Obama’s homecoming and the Sixth GES is amply illustrating.

The focus has been so intently, even exclusively, on President Obama and the GES – his administration’s brainchild and a legacy project – that it is easy to forget there are other heads of state and government in Nairobi for the Summit. However, only Obama has the clout to have JKIA temporarily shut down incoming (as it was for an hour yesterday) and on departure (as will happen sometime tomorrow afternoon or early evening).

East African Community presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame as well as South Sudan’s Salva Kiir are here. So are national leaders from all points of the compass in the rest of Africa.

GES 2015 and the China trigger

The coming to sub-Saharan Africa of the Sixth GES, specifically Kenya, has a China trigger. The flood of Chinese investment in sub-Africa, including vast transformational-change infrastructural projects, has woken up the West. And President Obama is doing the heavy lifting himself, leading from the front and doing what America has always done best – encouraging private enterprise and innovation and entrepreneurs and innovators. President Kenyatta was courted by the Chinese as long ago as 2013, when the West was leery of him as a national and regional leader because of the crimes against humanity case at the ICC.

China rolled out an investment, aid and partnership bonanza bankrolled by the billion, even in dollar terms.

The turning point in Obama-Kenyatta relations happened at the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, which the American leader invited the Kenyan leader to, despite the then still ongoing ICC case. Obama and Kenyatta had a 40-minute meeting in a room set aside for the purpose as the other African heads of state and government milled around in a stateroom next door.

After he emerged from this encounter, Uhuru spent a week in the US, in Washington and Dallas, and he repeatedly told gatherings and delegations of American businesspeople, “do not complain about the Chinese, they have seen the opportunity in Africa, including Kenya, and they have gone for it”.

This is a message that he had also taken to Japan, after Tokyo bellyached about China and Africa. The Japanese are now on the cusp of investing in Africa on a scale to make China nervous. In Kenya alone, the Japanese will soon be competitively bidding for vast projects in geothermal, the Mombasa Port, and the bridge across the Likoni Channel.

Obama’s homecoming and the GES are the ultimate seals of approval for Jubilee on the global stage. Despite and in spite of all those serial protocol breaches and adjustments, this is undoubtedly the high point of President Kenyatta’s first term.