The President of United States, Barack Obama, came calling in July 2015. His was a home-coming party like no other. Obama is a son of a diaspora home-boy. He made history by becoming the first Kenyan American president to visit Kenya.
When in 2006 Obama visited Kenya as a junior senator, he was welcomed like a popstar. This time round, welcoming Obama-the-president posed major security challenges. All invitees to his official public functions in Nairobi were thoroughly frisked.
There was tight security around Nairobi during the 3-day state visit. Traffic in Nairobi was a nightmare for motorist due to the many roads that were closed for many hours. On the last day of the visit, the usually very busy Thika Super Highway was closed from mid-morning to evening.
The measurable benefits of the visit by President Obama will be in terms of Foreign Direct Investment. But there is another more important benefit. The visit was a major Public Relations coup for the Kenyan diplomatic corps led by the hard working Ambassador Amina Mohamed.
In the run-up to the 2013 general elections in Kenya, the Nairobi-based Western diplomats broke their own professional norms and became openly activist. They stated there would be dire consequences should Kenyans elect Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto to State House.
As if to call their bluff on this seemingly neo-imperialist intervention in the internal affairs of an independent country, Kenyans elected the duo as president and deputy. Again, the Western diplomats reacted mischievously. They stated that they would only have essential contacts with the new Kenya government.
Faced with such diplomatic snub and subtle hostility, the new sheriffs in town actively pursued the Look East policies initiated by their predecessor, President Mwai Kibaki. Chinese companies won most contracts for major infrastructure projects.
Clearly, the diplomatic snub by the West was counter-productive. By the time the ICC case against Uhuru Kenyatta collapsed, the West was already playing catch-up with China in Kenya and other parts of Africa.
The Obama visit boosted the perception that Kenya is the business gateway to the East African Community and a major regional player in the fight against terrorism. As a multicultural country, Kenya remains a light house in a region defined by often brutal political and ethnic intolerance and violence.
Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, added to this perception when he brought his overwhelming soft power to Nairobi last week. His rallying call was “todos somos una nacion”, a Spanish phrase for “we are one nation”. In the space of just a few months, Kenya was once again in the headlines of world media for hosting the mighty, the meek and the popular among world leaders.
The media and the Opposition have largely dwelt on making political capital out of the fight against run away corruption. But, there is no denying Uhuru and Ruto have initiated development programs that could transform Kenya and raise the country’s international profile at home and abroad.
Take, for example, the rural electrification program. The electric power connection fee has been reduced by almost 50 per cent. Their health, education and slum upgrading programs enjoy popular support in many parts of the country.
President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are crowd pullers who easily connect through the social media with demographics of youthful voters. Truth be told. That folksy appeal could evaporate fast as Nigerians recently demonstrated by making Goodluck Jonathan a one-term president.
Kenya has achieved a lot in the last three years in advancing reforms spelled out in the new constitution. But everyone is waiting for jobs growth through modern industrial parks, improved farming techniques, water harvesting and new market stalls to replace the ageing jua-kali sheds of the Moi era. And for a drop in fuel and food prices.
By Leonard Njoroge, DM Media Contributor