Obama: The View from L.A.

In his keynote address at the Democratic Party National Convention in 2004, Barack Obama delivered arguably one of the best speeches in the 21st century, where he conjured up a personal narrative told as part of the larger American story. It is in this personal story that he reminded the world of his Kenyan roots:  “My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin roof shack….”  Years later, as the candidate Obama was running for the Democratic Party presidential ticket, he continued to remind the world of his Kenyan connection. From Brandenburg Gate in Germany to Iowa; from Chicago to Maine, Obama never forgot to connect his story to the country of his father-Kenya.

 Barack Obama no longer needs to mention Kenya, to make his case for the American story. He is the now the president of the United States of America, and it is in this capacity that he will be headlining the Global Entrepreneurs Summit (GES) in Kenya.

 It should not be lost to political observers that Obama’s visit comes at a crucial point of his presidency, more so at a time where he has rediscovered his magical touch. It is even safe to say that the Obama that will be visiting Kenya has been taking no prisoners of late! In a sense, Obama’s visit is full of symbolism and a deeper meaning that goes beyond GES. Kenya will be the first foreign country that Obama will visit since the historic nuclear deal with Iran was reached. It should be remembered that Kenya and Iran are historically great trade allies.  Iranian leaders are known to pay visit to Kenya to negotiate trade deals. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a regular visitor during the Moi regime. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Kenya in 2009 and the two countries agreed, among other things, to establish direct flights between Nairobi and Tehran, to set up a shipping line between the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and to build an Iranian Trade Center in Nairobi. Iran would also supply Kenya with 4 million tons of oil annually. So Obama’s visit must could be interpreted as a visit geared towards emphasizing to Kenya on the need to cooperate with America relative to ensuring that Iran does not renege on the nuclear deal.

 Obama’s visit has a feeling of a "Deja Vu" written all over it, like a band regrouping for one more song or one more performance. Obama is visiting the country where it all begun, conceivably, as a tribute to the effort of two unsung heroes in his personal journey-Tom Mboya and the Kennedy family. It was through Mboya’s airlift project in the 60’s  that the Obama’s father got an opportunity to study in America, where he would later meet a woman from Kansas and the two bore a child and named him Barack Obama. The role of JFK in financing the Mboya airlift project cannot be forgotten, and neither should the impact that this support had on JFK’s victory in the 1960 presidential elections be ignored.

 Historians remind us that when Tom Mboya needed $90,000 to cover the cost of airfare for 250 students from Kenya and six other East African countries, his appeals  to the Department of State for help with transportation were rebuffed, more so by  Vice President Nixon. With the future of these students in jeopardy, Tom Mboya sought the help of Senator Kennedy who would recommended that the Kennedy Foundation contribute the entire amount needed for the 1960 airlift.

 When word leaked out and the Nixon campaign learned that the Kennedy Foundation was financing the airlift, a Nixon campaign staff member went to the State Department, which promptly reversed its previous decisions and offered to provide $100,000 for the project, but this was too late. Mboya and his team had already accepted the Kennedy Foundation’s support. The controversy received a good deal of attention in the press over the following weeks. Pundits  point to JFK's slim margin of victory in the 1960 presidential election, as being propelled by his capture of 68 percent of the African American , which was a  7 percent increase compared with the previous election. Years later, it would not be strange that Ted Kennedy, JFK’s brother who was among the highest ranking Democratic Senators to endorse Obama’s candidature.

 Obama’s visit to Kenya will also seek to put the record straight on a number of things, not that they matter, but because it is all about pride. When Obama visited Kenya, then as a junior senator in Illinois, the then government spokesman Alfred Mutua, who is now serving as Machakos governor, rapped Obama for criticizing government’s failure to curb corruption, saying that the country’s governance policy could not be critiqued by a "junior senator." It would also be interesting to seeing children whose fathers were antagonistic to each other, put these differences aside and come together for the betterment of their countries. In his book Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama makes it known that his family believes Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had a hand in the tribulations that his father had to endure, which eventually led to his death. As he writes; “the Old Man’s (Obama senior) situation improved. Kenyatta died, and somehow the Old Man was able to work again in government. He got a job with the Ministry of Finance and started to have money again, and influence”

 As a Kenyan living in America Diaspora, I am thrilled by Obama’s visit, not because this visit will do anything special for Kenya but because of the lessons we can tap from Obama, the leader. Obama has shown time and again that he looks to build consensus as a way to avoiding confrontations. For example, a few years ago, when a black Harvard professor was wrongfully arrested by a white policeman, the issue generated racial undertones. Instead of allowing the debate to exacerbate, Obama called the two parties to White House for the famous mug of beer, and the two gentlemen shook hands and forgave each other. His role in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, the re-opening of the Cuba-America diplomatic relations are a few of the examples that Kenya can learn from Obama relative to consensus building.

 To this end, we should aim to bridge the gaps that so often make us squabble, fight and hate each other based on tribal lines. Obama’s visit should be a reminder that peace can prevail if we are willing to reach out to those who we perceive as our enemies. The question therefore is, is IEBC willing to listen to all parties-government and opposition, or is chest thumping the best approach to building trust and credibility ahead of the next elections. Is the infighting within counties the best approach to seek supremacy? Your guess is as good as mine.

 Sadly though, even as Obama is visiting Kenya, his State Department has already issued a travel warning to Americans noting that they could be a target during the summit. This is indicative of the logic that Obama is only going to the summit to advance the interests of Americans. He may meet a few Kenyans here and there and exchange pleasantries but when everything is said and done, when the dust finally settles, we shall realize he was in it to consolidate what is best for America.

 Obama’s visit is not a call for Kenyan to be presumptuous with expectations or preposterous with pretense. Frantz Fanon, in one of his books postulates that by Africa being a third world country, it a sign of escaping from a state of backwardness. It is backward when we have to beautify Nairobi just because Obama is coming to town. It shows our loyalty is not to the Kenyan people. Don’t Kenyans deserve a Nairobi that is as clean as it will be when Obama is in town? Don’t Kenyans deserve a Nairobi that is as safe as it will be when Obama will be in town?

President Uhuru Kenyatta was recently in America. I do not think the governor(s) of the state(s) he visited spent taxpayer’s money to fudge the look of the city, just because a leader was visiting.  Whenever president Obama has visited Los Angeles, I have never seen this ‘make-over’ that Africans love to do so much. You know why? Elected leaders in America swear by public service. That is why streets are always clean. Garbage is always collected. Parking is always enforced. Road repairs are always carried out-not for politicians, but for the local Mwananchi.

Definitely Obama is the one man who many people will be looking to see and hear from come the GES summit. For me however, I am more fascinated, heck, intrigued by what the Kenyan delegates will say and showcase. I am looking forward to what president Uhuru Kenyatta will tell the world because in the end, if we cannot heal as a country, if we cannot do it as a country, if we cannot work together as Kenyans, if we cannot do our tasks as Kenyans, if we cannot go the extra mile as Kenyans for Kenya, if we cannot do what we must do as Kenyans, then no outsider-not even Obama, Putin, Markel or any other leader outside of the leaders we have in Kenya,  will do it for us. 


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