The excitement has been building for months. On July 23, Air Force One – the official United States (US) presidential aircraft – will land at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.
Across Kenya, the visit of US President Barack Obama is the talk of the town. In Nairobi, enterprising vendors are already producing t-shirts with the words Karibu Nyumbani printed on them. It means welcome home.
Obama’s vist to Kenya is iconic. He will not only be visiting a friendly nation, he is visiting his father’s homeland. Barack Hussein Obama Sr was a Kenyan who moved to the US in the 1950s to study. The current US president was born in Hawaii in 1961.
His last visit to Nairobi was in 2006 as a senator. Government officials then described him as a junior senator when he called for action against rampant graft in Kenya.
During his upcoming visit, Obama will attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), which he will co-host. It will be his first trip to Kenya as president. He has previously visited Ghana, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.
Launched by Obama in 2009, GES will see more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and investors showcase innovative projects, exchange ideas and create economic opportunities.
While in the country, Obama will meet with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. Setting the stage for this meeting was the two-day visit to Nairobi by US Secretary of State, John Kerry.
The Uhuru-Kerry talks revolved around trade between the two nations and terrorism. The US has pledged to support Kenya’s fight against terrorism, which is a thorn in east Africa’s side and promised $100 million to aid the cause.
“There can be no question that our meetings here today were timely. Events in Kenya and the broader region present us with a broad array of tests. The threat posed by violent extremism is regrettably foremost among them,” said Kerry after meeting with Kenyatta.
Whether Obama, who is in his final term as US President, would visit his father’s homeland had been hotly debated. Since being elected in 2008, Obama has been non-committal on the matter.
This was further complicated by the 2013 elections in Kenya that saw President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto take office. At the time, the two faced charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague in the Netherlands.
It was only at the funeral service of Nelson Mandela in South Africa that Obama first met Kenyatta face to face. A photo of the two shaking hands at the FNB Stadium spread rapidly on social media. The case against Kenyatta has since been dropped at the ICC. Ruto is, however, still on trial.
Most link this decision by the ICC to Obama finally ‘coming home’. Interestingly, Kerry met Kenyatta in the absence of his deputy. Kenyatta and Ruto have in the past met dignitaries as a team.
Unlike his previous visits to Kenya, Obama’s next trip will be marked with fanfare and splendour. Obama visited Kenya in 1988, then 1991, when he brought ‘home’ his then fiancé and now wife Michelle, and 2006.
There is still uncertainty over Obama taking time off to visit his extended family in the western parts of Kenya. Nevertheless, his late father’s homestead is a hive of activity. The national government and devolved government are working round the clock. Among other things, Barrack Hussein Obama Sr’s grave is being spruced up, just in case the president makes the all-important pilgrimage.
“We are trying to speak to the US Embassy in Nairobi as well as the national government to have President Obama visit Kisumu and hold a public lecture in this region,” says Governor of Kisumu County, Jack Ranguma.
Analysts hope that Obama’s visit will revive Kenya’s tourism industry. A number of western nations which are key source of tourists have labelled the country unsafe.
“This is a strong message to other nations that Kenya is not as insecure as we have been labelled. This visit by Obama is crucial to us in the tourism sector,” says Agatha Juma, the CEO Kenya Tourism Federation.
On the streets however, Kenyans are just happy that one of their sons, who is also the president of the most powerful nation in the world, is returning home.