Why Is Barack Obama Skipping Kenya in His African Trip?

By James N. Kariuki*

Obama addressing young African Leaders In less than a month, US President Obama will undertake his first extended visit to Africa. Amazingly, the tour excludes Kenya. This is puzzling since Kenya is Obama’s ancestral homeland. Even fellow Americans are wondering: why would Obama bypass his ‘old country?’

The intrigue dissipates when viewed through the prism of Kenya’s recent national election. When the votes were finally cast at the end of that process it was the West, especially the US and Britain that was mystified that Uhuru Kenyatta emerged victorious over their candidate of choice, Raila Odinga. Is the planned omission of Kenya in Obama’s itinerary a form of simple-minded revenge?

This seems to be the case when it is considered that fighting terrorism is a critical priority in US foreign policy. In Eastern Africa, Kenya has been central to counter-terrorism. In this sense, Kenya and the US have a shared interest in tackling a core issue to both. Why would the US president bypass the most prominent ally in the region? It is indeed tempting to believe that Obama’s ill-advised strategy may have nothing to do with US national interests. Is it a case of personal vendetta?

Uhuru and his deputy, William Ruto, are ICC-inductees allegedly for orchestrating Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence. But these charges erupted as the credibility of the ICC itself was on decline. There were ‘loud whispers’ that the court targeted African leaders disproportionately. Yet, the greatest human rights enemies were Western leaders and they, invariably, walked free.

Barack Obama himself is considered a case in point. Under his personal watch, thousands of innocent people have been killed by unmanned drones in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The ICC has never even pretended to indict him. But the sins of US George Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the Iraq War were more relevant. To-date, thousands of innocent Iranians have died due to Western belligerence on ‘cooked-up’ claims.  The ICC has never gone after the perpetrators.

Sensitive questions thus arose: Has the ICC become a neo-colonial tool of the West? Why the selective justice? Unfortunately, for the court, this view was championed by none other than the continental African Union. The hunter had suddenly become the hunted; the ICC itself was on trial in public opinion.

In this anti-ICC atmosphere, it appeared contrived that the West continued to pose as the guardians of human rights in Kenya. In the 2012-13 campaign in particular, the British and Americans shamelessly masqueraded as the moral force to constantly remind Kenyan voters that Uhuru and his running-mate were ICC-inductees, unworthy of the presidency.

Prof-James-Kariuki To emphasize the point, Britain declared that in the unlikely event that Uhuru won the elections, it would maintain only ‘essential contacts’ with his government. At that juncture the Uhuru’s Jubilee Alliance felt compelled to object bitterly and publicly to the “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement of the British High Commissioner in Kenya’s election.”

Lest it is forgotten, the US is not a signatory to the ICC. Yet, the Americans went beyond subtle hints by issuing a thinly-veiled threat to the Kenyan voters: ‘choices have consequences.’ Implicit in the statement was that, if Kenyans voted the Uhuru-Ruto ticket to power, the Western powers would punish them.

In sum, the Uhuru-Ruto Alliance was denied the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, a legal doctrine that the West otherwise holds dear. Is by-passing Kenya in the forthcoming Obama visit one of the consequences to Kenyans for making the wrong choice in the 2013 election? Would Obama consider by-passing Kenya had Raila Odinga won the presidency?

 Again, many Kenyans believe that Obama’s current dismissive attitude towards Kenya has nothing to do with the American vital interests; it is a personal vendetta against Kenyans for rejecting his preference, Raila Odinga, as their president. Is this nepotism, negative ethnicity or meddling on others’ domestic matters on the part of Barck Obama?  The answer is in blowing in the wind.

What is known is the excessive lengths to which Obama went to boost Raila Odinga’s political chances in Kenya. These included financial, political and campaign support. Unfortunately, the attempts ultimately fell short.

Baba Kabwela has it that the ICC has been under immense Western pressure to prosecute Uhuru Kenyatta and his running-mate for no other reason than to remove them as obstacles to Odinga’s way to Kenya’s presidency. For this purpose, a three-pronged strategy was devised. As a bona fide ICC member, Britain would push the Indictment issue from the legal aspect. Meanwhile, the US would agitate for the same ICC matter in Kenya politically, using its weight as a respectable foreign donor and world’s superpower.

Finally, the strategy called upon Odinga to exploit the same ICC-issue from the home front. In his campaign logic, Kenyan voters would never choose ICC-criminals over the ‘clean’ self. Additionally, it would be impossible for Uhuru and Ruto to rule Kenya from The Hague. After a long and turbulent political career, it would finally be smooth sailing for Raila to the State House.

As the campaign wound down, polls showed that Kenya’s elections were indeed close. But Raila Odinga was not concerned. With all the weight of the Western powers on his side, he doubtlessly would win the election; “it wouldn’t even be close.”

The prediction was wrong on both counts.  The tally was close—very close, but Raila was the loser. He and Barack Obama were understandably stunned and disappointed. Avoiding Kenya on the forthcoming Obama’s African trip is their way of pouting.

*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. The views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.



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