IN THE summer of 2006, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois in the U.S. visited Kenya as part of a four-country tour to raise AIDS awareness in Africa. His name, you rightly guessed, was Barack Obama. President Mwai Kibaki, then Head of State, was feeling the heat of leading a fractious government under the banner of National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) which ousted President Moi in the 2002 multi-party elections. Moi had led the country for 24 years of often rocky politics.

The cracks in the NARC government had quickly wiped away the widespread joy and ululations witnessed at the Kibaki swearing-in ceremony held at Uhuru Park in 2002. Now, the talk of the town was mega corruption, unemployment and ethnic bashing in preparation for the 2007 general election.

Barack Obama had walked right into the eye of the storm by commenting about this state of the Kenyan politics, the intricacies of which he probably didn’t quite understand at the time even with the likely help of the U.S. Embassy briefings. The Kibaki administration was a little surprised that the senator had been so daring and seemingly undiplomatic in his comments. Dr. Alfred Mutua, the then State House spokesperson (and now Governor of Machakos County) dismissively stated, and rightly so, that Obama’s comments were uncalled for as he was a little known junior senator in the U.S.

Kenyans love their heroes and especially their political heroes. Obama became an overnight political sensation in Kenya for having irritated the Kibaki administration. In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, a sea of thousands, mostly young people welcomed him with shouts of Obama! Obama!  Whether this rock star welcome aroused in him the desire to one day become U.S. president is subject of speculation better left for his memoirs.

Two years after his visit to Kenya, the Democratic National Convention in August 2008 officially nominated Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden to run for President and Vice President of the United States. Obama accepted the nomination with an electrifying speech that dwelt on securing America’s bright future by changing the way Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. conducts business.

America could not wait to elect a President who promised so much and who, being the first African-American holder of that office, represented so much change. The American story of Opportunities Possible was unfolding in the eyes of the world. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. The world was in love with Captain America and Americana was in high demand everywhere. President Obama even won the Nobel Peace Prize, seemingly for his intentions than actions.

On 4th June 2009 President Obama was at Cairo University in Egypt to deliver an energizing speech called “A New Beginning”. The speech piled pressure on North African political leadership to accept reforms that would transform their countries’ economies and politics. This speech may be what triggered the Arab Spring of violent revolutionary protests that swept the Arab world, from Tunisia to Syria, the effects of which can be felt even today.

Muammar Gadhafi, the eccentric former Libyan strongman is long gone and country remains lawless. Egypt has been through a revolution and a count-revolution. Syria is still going through a disastrous war and the country will probably never be the same again. Even with the presence of African Union intervention forces, Somalia situated in the Horn of Africa, remains chaotic and a haven for radical extremists.

It is unlikely that any of these situations will dampen the celebratory mood expected to greet Obama in Kenya during the July visit to the land of his father. Unlike North Africa, the political tensions in Kenya and East Africa never exploded into full scale war. But the danger this could happen remains real as the on-going South Sudan conflict and the recent military putsch in Burundi have shown.

President Obama’s visit to Kenya coincides with the country’s opposition-driven clamor for a national referendum to change the constitution. Whether Obama will address the political issues in contention remains to be seen, now that the former junior senator is the leader of a super power with global aspirations.

Will President Obama seize the exciting moment of his visit to convince President Uhuru Kenyatta and Cord Leader Raila Odinga that only a bipartisan approach could achieve domestic stability and security for Kenya and her neighbors? Or will his visit open new wounds and trigger North Africa-type of social and economic turmoil? In a country where restless youth might be tempted to accept anything other than what they are living through, including radicalization by extremists, these questions demand answers.

By Leonard Njoroge, Diaspora Messenger Contributor, Email: [email protected]



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