Kenyans welcome Obama as their own 'son of the soil'

NAIROBI, Kenya — Barack Obama bounded down the steps of Air Force One at Nairobi's airport to the usual red-carpet protocol: shaking hands with the Kenyan president, accepting flowers from a little girl.

But then came a very different moment for an American presidential visit. Obama gave a big hug to his half-sister, Auma Obama, before the siblings left the airport together in his bulletproof limousine known as “The Beast.”

Here in his father’s homeland, Obama is hailed as a “son of the soil.” Kenyans are ecstatic to see his first visit as president at long last, more than six years after he first took office. Friday marked the start of a three-day visit to the country.

But as Obama nears the end of his second and final term, there are broader questions about the legacy of his presidency in Africa — that is, beyond being the first American president with an African father.

Obama’s election in 2008 was cheered around the continent. Hopes that he would pay special attention to Africa remained high when the president visited Ghana in 2009, shortly after taking office. “I have the blood of Africa within me,” Obama declared in a speech to Ghana’s parliament.

That visit lasted less than 24 hours. Obama wouldn’t travel to Africa again until four years later, in 2013, when he toured Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania — to palpably less excited crowds.

Witney Schneidman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that Obama was tied up during his first term with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and domestic issues including the economy. And then there were the stubborn "birther" conspiracy theories that Obama was born in Kenya, which would have dogged him on any visit there.

Only now has the president been able to focus on Africa, Schneidman said during a recent media briefing.

Obama’s 2013 trip has been described as a “re-engagement” with a rising continent. The president's Africa policy has since centered on trade and investment, an approach compared to China’s keenly business-focused relationship with African countries.

In comparison, Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush focused his efforts on combating HIV and AIDS in Africa, with widely praised programs that continue today. Bill Clinton’s legacy includes economic initiatives such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), an agreement offering the tariff-free export of many goods from African countries to the United States.

Obama’s flagship initiatives include “Power Africa,” which aims to increase access to electricity; and last year’s inaugural summit of African leaders in Washington, as well as the Young African Leaders Initiative. He also recently saw through the renewal of AGOA.

All of Obama’s initiatives “have the US and the African private sectors woven into them and the private sector was there at the beginning,” Schneidman said. “This is new. No administration prior has really engaged the US and the African private sectors seriously and as constructively as this one has.”

Here in Kenya, Obama’s main focus is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit — launched by the president in 2009 — where he is due to speak on Saturday. Choosing Kenya to co-host this year's summit “underscores the fact that Africa, and Kenya in particular, has become a center for innovation and entrepreneurship,” a US government statement said.

After Kenya the president will visit Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, home of the Chinese-financed African Union headquarters, where he will meet with AU leaders on trade and security issues.

After this trip, Obama will have visited more African countries than any sitting American president — though far fewer than China’s top leaders, who visit Africa at a fast and furious rate.

Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program describes “a lack of imagination and high-profile attention” to Africa during Obama’s first term.

In comparison, Obama’s trip to Kenya — preceded by a meeting with the new Nigerian president in Washington, and followed by the visit to Ethiopia — “illustrate the increasingly complex set of US interests in Africa,” Downie writes.

"During the second term, the Obama administration has made a bigger play for relevance in Africa by pursuing economic growth strategies that have the capacity to touch the lives of Africans beyond the usual cast of victims covered by the Western media in windswept refugee camps and HIV clinics." 

In this way, Obama may be forging a legacy of a more up-to-date American relationship with Africa.