WHAT AWAITS OBAMA IN KENYA
FORGET the guard of honor. Forget the teams of traditional dancers. Don’t even mention the agile Chuka and Kamba drummers or the beautiful sound of the Luo nyatiti, the elegant Maasai or the graceful Taarab musicians from the Kenyan coast. From the moment president Obama’s plane touches down at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this coming July, the question on everybody’s lips will be: What Took You So Long?
You see, this homecoming of Kenya’s most famous son, who doubles as the 44th President and Commander-In-Chief of the US armed forces, is taking place 6 years after his first inauguration in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2009. President Obama will need all his powers of persuasion, his charisma and a lot of his infectious and disarming smiles. He could say that he inherited a badly bruised economy and two wars and that he needed time to put things in order back home. Or he could blame Hilary Clinton, his former Secretary of State for the delayed visit.
The generous people of Kenya will probably nod in agreement, and not wanting to embarrass their very important guest, they will feign ignorance that not too long ago, Air Force One landed in Tanzania which gave president Kikwete the distinction of being the first East African Head of State to host Obama the president.
Due to many years of such self-imposed non-engagement with Kenya, the jet carrying President Obama will probably land at an airport recently renovated with the help of Chinese funding and contractors. The president’s beast limo will probably drive on roads re-carpeted by Chinese companies. Even the hotel his team will stay in may have a touch of China, from the floor rugs to the cutlery. The message is clear. While the US stayed away, Kenya, a loyal cold-war era partner, feeling cold-shouldered looked East and was not disappointed.
But African courtesy demands as a rule that only nice things are diplomatically said on the first day of a visit by an important guest such as president Obama. In Kiswahili language, that is called Mgeni Siku Ya Kwanza courtesy. So we can expect that the president will be accorded a rock star welcome. Going by past experience, Kenyans will be full and overflowing with that something called feel-good in anticipation of Magic Obama. Were it not for the new constitution, the ever generous Kenyans would even be tempted to declare the day of his arrival as a public holiday.
We hope president Obama will not disappoint by repeating the mistake he made on his visit to Senegal where he discussed in public, matters that Africans only mention in whispers. Despite years of contact with Western liberalism, Africa remains largely conservative on many social issues. For good or for worse, pushing a liberal agenda down the throats of reluctant Africans should be left to technocrats.
The second hard question that Obama will face on day two of his visit will probably be: What Have You Brought? This Mgeni Siku Ya Pili question will be informed by Kenya being the gateway to Eastern Africa, a market of almost 130 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of more than $80 billion. There is oil and gas to be tapped, millions of hungry people to be fed, homes and industries to be powered, rail, roads and ports to be built and consumer demands of a growing middle class to be met.
Kenya and the whole of Eastern Africa represent a significant opportunity for increased trade and investment. But population pressure and years of bad governance pose a serious threat to local and regional stability especially from high crime rates, the war in South Sudan and terror attacks inspired by Somalia-based Al Shabaab militants.
During his visit, President Obama should declare a Marshall Plan for Kenya as the country is a mini replica of United States: free market economy, multi-party political system, religious tolerance, educated and globalized pro-Western middle class and a home to refugees and immigrants from all over Africa. The United States of Africa could start from Kenya. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, assisting people escape from poverty is the largest single counter to enemies of freedom.
By Leonard Njoroge, Diaspora Messenger Contributor, Email: [email protected]