President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya, the first ever by a serving US President, is a destiny trip for him. Although it was premised on his longstanding undertaking to visit Kenya before his presidency ends, the visit concludes the personal journey of the rank outsider, who overcame many odds, including his Kenyan roots, to rise to the highest political office in the world.
For Obama, the visit is a completion of the circle, a spiritual homecoming that celebrates victory against the personal and family setbacks that are part of the US President’s history.
The visit was nearly marred by the complications that have faced the Kenyan leadership’s journey to power, related to the cases before the International Criminal Court.
As Kenya prepared for Elections 2013 with ICC charges and massive uncertainty hanging over Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, announced that the impending Kenyan elections provided an opportunity to make responsible decisions that should take into account the recent history of the country.
He then delivered the famous statement that “choices have consequences.”
Because the statement was the subject of multiple interpretations, it was widely understood as an admonition against electing Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as President and Deputy President.
The end of the case against Kenyatta, even though that against Ruto is still on, provided the much-craved opportunity for President Obama to make the trip.
To do so, the sophistic distinction has had to be made that since Kenyatta’s case has ended, the path became clear for the US President to visit.
For Kenyatta, and to some extent Ruto as well, Obama’s visit is a much-needed affirmation after the bruising ICC cases. The visit is a confirmation that Kenya has finally and fully been rehabilitated into the community of nations after the pariah status imposed by the ICC charges facing Kenyatta and Ruto, when they became President and Deputy President.
To be sure, the trip papers over the fact that Kenyatta’s case came to an end without a chance for the merits of the charges against him to be addressed and, therefore, without the possibility to clear his name having arisen.
However, Kenyatta would not care about any of these things, which do not detract from the fact this is a fine moment for him and a reflection of the fact that he has completely overcome the uncertainties that faced him when he came to office.
The trip significantly strengthens Kenyatta’s political position both in Kenya and internationally and helps to put further behind him the controversies surrounding the post-election violence.
As a consequence, however, it will now be more difficult for groups in Kenya to maintain the already-floundering agenda for accountability for the post-election violence.
Obama’s trip magnifies the awkward position that still faces Jubilee as a result of the charges against Ruto, who was not part of the welcoming party for the US President.
If Ruto stays away and does not meet Obama because of the ICC charges, this will only emphasise that the end of the Kenyatta case, while the Ruto case persists, has loosened the ties that bind Jubilee.
If Ruto meets with Obama, it will be a significant departure from the “choices have consequences” warning, one that would be seen as the US diplomacy eating humble pie on Kenya.
Other than concerns about accountability for the post-election violence, the Obama visit also raises questions about what the US thinks about Kenya’s human rights record.
While Kenya enacted a celebrated Constitution, the short duration that Jubilee has been in power has been characterised by a worrying closing of civic space, examples of which include the vitriol that Jubilee has staged against political dissidents, and the ongoing attempts to enact legislation designed to curb the operations of the civil society sector.
Obama seems to have shown awareness about these concerns in the manner in which the meetings he will hold while in Kenya have been selected.
Other than the meetings with Kenyan officials, the US President is also meeting Kenyan civil society leaders and the leadership of the main opposition.
As Obama has, himself, said, the meeting with civil society will send the message that the US cares about civic freedoms which have come under jeopardy during the Jubilee regime.
In Ethiopia, where the US President will go next, Addis Ababa has released six of the Zone Nine Bloggers incarcerated since April 2014.
The aftermath of the Obama visit will leave two possibilities.
The first is that validation that Jubilee will get from the visit will make government assume a relaxed attitude to power, and, therefore, quit troubling independent groups, while the second possibility is that Jubilee will more confidently continue on a repressive trajectory.
The US must surely assume greater responsibility for Kenya if it is the second possibility which materialises as a result of the visit.
The different circumstances of two presidents have created a need which made this visit possible. The visitor needed a homecoming before he retires from office, and the host realised that he could benefit from the glory, and validation, that such a visit would invariably attract.
The meeting at the airport between Kenyatta and Obama settled the point that some presidents are more equal than others.
Kenyatta will benefit from the Obama visit.