The first time Barack Obama arrived in Kenya, the airport in Nairobi was, he recalled, "almost empty." The few officials there ignored him except for trying to bum a cigarette off him. They paid little attention to the fact that his luggage had been lost. Bagless, he left the airport in an old and broken down Volkswagen Beetle, its engine knocking and its muffler missing. "I felt tired and abandoned," he wrote later.
Friday night, 29 years later, he returns under decidedly different circumstances. This time, Kenyatta International Airport will not be empty. And his baggage — now including dozens of aides, hundreds of reporters, and thousands of security personnel as well as multiple armored limousines, a fleet of helicopters, and Air Force One — will not be misplaced.
The young man of that 1987 trip is back as the gray-haired president of the United States of America and the world's most famous son of Kenya. And while the young Obama was looking for signs of his own identity and a family he had never known, an older President Obama comes to Kenya — and his next stop in Ethiopia — bearing the message that the world's only superpower genuinely cares about Africa and is ready to help the continent battle terrorists, conquer disease, and fuel an economic resurgence.
This is not Obama's first return to Kenya since that 1987 visit. He has been back both as a private citizen and as a newly elected U.S. senator. But it is his first trip there as president. With that in mind, both the president and the White House have gone to great lengths to emphasize the official nature of his agenda and to de-emphasize the personal aspects of the trip. Pointedly, he is leaving his wife and two daughters back home, and he plans no side trip to his father's village of Kogelo, a seven-hour drive from the capital.
Obama does not deny that any return to Kenya can be emotional for him. It is just that he prefers to have those emotions play out away from the prying cameras and shouted questions of an international news media intent on writing about his homecoming. The trip, he said at his press conference last week, is "obviously something I am looking forward to."
But, he added, "I will be honest with you. Visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president, because I can actually get outside of the hotel room or a conference center." What he called "the logistics of visiting a place" — the ever-present security, the aides, the reporters — "are always tough as president."
That is particularly true in the Horn of Africa, a region that has been wracked by terrorist attacks, and the adjoining country of Kenya, still recovering from two brutal attacks launched by the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab — the killing of 67 at Nairobi's Westgate Mall in September 2013 and the killing of 147 at Garissa University on April 2.
The White House would also like to blunt the criticism that the president waited until his seventh year in office to travel to Kenya and tamp down the talk that he has failed to meet the high expectations of a country where so many schools bear his name and so many children born after his election are called "Barack," "Michelle," "Sasha," or "Malia."
"President Obama is loved across the continent," said Dr. Monde Muyangwa, director of the Wilson Center's Africa Program. "Expectations were high, and there is a sense that he has a deep connection to the continent. His presidency is celebrated across the continent and in the broader black diaspora across the world." But, she told National Journal as she was preparing to fly to Kenya to be there when the president arrives, "These were not realistic expectations." And, she said, the president "got off to a slow start" on Africa in his first term because of the need to focus on the domestic economic crisis.
E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy director of the Crisis Group's Africa Program, said the connection Kenyans feel is intense. "I don't think that Kenyans think of Obama as African-American. They think of him as Kenyan-American," he said. And, given the deep tribal split in Kenya between Luo and Kikuyu, he added, "Arguably, they even think of him as Luo-American."
The White House is casting this trip as all business, though. They stress the influential audiences at the two main stops on the trip — the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi on Saturday and the meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa on Tuesday. The most personal touches are likely to be found in the president's address to the Kenyan people on Sunday.
Despite Obama's personal ties to Africa, it is striking that his policies toward the continent have continued in a steady line first outlined by Democrat Bill Clinton and fleshed out by Republican George W. Bush. Before Clinton, U.S. policy toward the continent was seen through a Cold War prism. After Clinton, the policy has been guided by security and economic interests. A struggle to find Cold War allies became a search for U.S. markets.
Before Clinton, the only presidential visits to sub-Saharan Africa were by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made a brief stop in Liberia in 1943 on his way back from the Casablanca Conference, and Jimmy Carter, who went to Nigeria and Liberia in 1978.
Between 1978 and 1998, presidents were no-shows except for a George H.W. Bush visit to American troops in Somalia on New Year's Eve in 1992.
But that changed in 1998 when Clinton, accompanied by members of Congress and a small army of eager business leaders, descended on the continent for an 11-day, six-country visit. In 2000, he was back for two more countries over four days.
Bush built on Clinton's foundation, making two separate trips to 10 countries over 11 days and gaining widespread respect in Africa for his attention to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"Clinton really put the spotlight on Africa and forced people to say we need to start looking at Africa differently. He drew attention to a continent that had been largely ignored in the United States," said Muyangwa. "President Bush actually brought the attention and the resources. He built on the spotlight provided by the Clinton administration. Now, we see the Obama administration trying to build on both the Clinton and the Bush administrations."
National Security Adviser Susan Rice boasts that this is Obama's fourth trip to sub-Saharan Africa. But two of those trips were quick in-and-outs — a speech in Ghana in 2009 and the Nelson Mandela funeral in 2013. His only sustained trip was in 2013 when he spent seven days in three countries. So, to Kenyans and many Africans who have waited to see him, this 2015 trip marks the first real chance for Obama to put his own mark on African policy. They note this is the first-ever presidential trip to Kenya, the first-ever to Ethiopia and the first-ever appearance before the influential African Union.
"That is huge," said Muyangwa. "The symbolism of it plus the fact that it gives him the opportunity to speak to ordinary Africans from the seat of the African Union is powerfully important." It is a chance to remind Africans in general and Kenyans in particular just why they fell in love with him in 2008. And it is why he won't be able to just slip away as the younger Obama did 29 years ago.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.