Going to Kenya Is a Dumb Idea, Mr. President



By Robert I. Rotberg

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry paid a welcome, quick and clandestine visit to troubled Somalia after a short, heavily protected stop in Kenya. But that doesn’t make President Obama’s plan to visit Kenya in July any less misconceived or dangerous. To uphold the dignity of his office, and for the good of Kenyans, President Obama should postpone until after he leaves the White House his very understandable desire to visit the homeland of his father.

Does President Obama really want to be forced, inevitably, to be the state guest of a country where the sitting president and vice-president, his hosts, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes connected with the violence and killings that followed Kenya’s 2007 election? The ICC has dropped its case against President Uhuru Kenyatta because its many original witnesses ended up refusing to testify after (presumably) being approached by persuasive representatives of Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto, whose ICC investigation continues. But does President Obama truly seek to shake their hands officially? How could he, and the United States, avoid being compromised diplomatically and our promotion of human rights globally sullied?

Meeting with unsavory heads of state is, admittedly, part of an American president’s job. But we can continue to be friendly to Kenya without our president paying a visit and, by so doing, conferring legitimacy. Secretary of State Kerry has conferred sufficient legitimacy for the moment.

Kenya (as well as neighboring Tanzania and Uganda) is wildly corrupt. Accusations of graft and sleaze reach high into the upper echelons of the ruling parties in all three countries. Conferring the honor of President Obama’s office on such thoroughly questionable leaders would do little to strengthen our own role as a promoter of good governance and the rule of law. Would Kenyans and other Africans (not to mention Americans at home) not wonder at our policy inconsistencies?

Do President Obama and his advisors realize that the president’s father was a Luo and that the Luo largely backed President Kenyatta’s opponents in the 2012 Kenyan national election? The rift between Luo and Kikuyu (President Kenyatta’s people) dates back to at least Obama’s father’s era when Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, ruled Kenya and was opposed by Oginga Odinga. In the last presidential contest, which Uhuru Kenyatta won, his chief opponent was Raila Odinga, son of Oginga Odinga.

President Obama naturally and appropriately will want to visit his paternal homestead in the Luo heartland. But traveling there will plunge the American president deeply into ethnic politics in Kenya, and do nothing for inter-group harmony in that volatile country. Visiting after the end of his presidency would not show such favoritism (whether intended or not) to one side in a divided Kenya. President Obama, deft as he is, needs to avoid putting himself or his office into the middle of any ethnic and electoral animosities that still linger.

Even putting Kenya’s ethnic tensions aside, the dangers to Obama’s person are too great, particularly given the Secret Service’s inability even in Washington, D.C. to prevent intruders from scaling the perimeter fence and entering the White House. Barring a major Secret Service screw-up, the United States can presumably mount and afford the massive security phalanx that would be required to keep President Obama safe (guarding President Obama in today’s Kenya will cost approximately $60 million). But Kenya hardly can.

That developing nation has better uses for its limited cash than protecting a visiting head of state who need not visit their country until after he leaves office. President George W. Bush went to Zambia in 2012 without a large entourage. President Obama should in good conscience postpone paying fealty to his father’s land until after 2016, when Kenya, with major American assistance, may have finally helped the Somali Federal Government defeat the al-Shabaab militants, who weeks ago viciously attacked Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya.

Al-Shabaab’s grip on Somali has been loosened over the last five years thanks to Burundian, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Sierra Leonean, and Ugandan soldiers on the ground and American drones and bombers in the air. American raiders take credit for eliminating al-Shabaab’s top leaders, one by one. Given America’s military actions against the group, why would al-Shabaab, notorious for the Garissa outrage and for its attack in 2013 on a shopping mall in Nairobi, not attempt to harm President Obama or those in his entourage? Why take such extreme risks?

Furthermore, continuing to plan for the Kenyan pilgrimage now gives al-Shabaab and other troublemakers months to prepare. Whenever a sitting American president has previously visited a dangerous location, such as Afghanistan, he has arrived suddenly, as Kerry did in Mogadishu, with no warning.

Taking official American notice of Africa is worthy. President Obama did so in 2009 when he dropped in on Ghana and in 2013 when he visited Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. But perhaps a better itinerary would take President Obama this year to Liberia, where Ebola is finally being vanquished; to Botswana, where corruption is less of a concern than anywhere else on the continent; to Ethiopia, where the African Union has its Chinese-constructed headquarters and where President Obama also intends to go; to Malawi, where a former law professor at an American university is attempting to build his impoverished country up from the bootstraps; or to Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, where a brand-new President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to end corruption. Going to Africa without stopping in Nigeria would be a big mistake.

As a long-time, dedicated, Africanist, I’d like every American president to be exposed to Africa, and to wave our flag high in the face of Chinese emblems and Chinese construction projects. But this is not the time for a Kenyan-descended president to visit his ancestral home.


Robert I. Rotberg is Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center; Founding Director, Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict; and President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. One of his recent books is Africa Emerges: Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities (2013). The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author.

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