Barack Obama, who is on his way to Kenya for the first time as president this week, was never going to live up to expectations in Africa. Not only the first African-American president but the son of an African, Obama’s election was declared a national holiday in his father’s home country, Kenya, in 2008. The outsize expectations for the president were summed up in a Ugandan newspaper headline from that year that confidently assured readers that the East Africa country “tops Obama’s agenda.”
It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. During a presidency marked by turmoil in the Middle East, a “pivot” to Asia, confrontation with Russia, an economic crisis in Europe, and—more recently—an opening to a longtime foe in Latin America, Africa has generally been a lower priority, something even his aides have at times acknowledged. Polls show the president is still more popular in Africa than in any other region, though it’s also where his image has suffered the steepest declines since 2008, due largely to disappointment that he hasn’t made the region more of a priority.
Obama will likely leave office with less of a legacy on the continent than his predecessor George W. Bush, who has been widely praised since he left office even by many of his staunchest detractors for the success of his “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief” initiative. Obama’s signature Africa initiative, the $7 billion electrification project known as Power Africa, was the subject of a harsh critique in the New York Times this week: “The reality of Power Africa’s promise bears little resemblance to the president’s soaring words. It has yet to deliver any electricity.”
Reflecting on Obama’s Africa record, the Center for American Progress’s John Norris argues that the fact that Obama wasn’t the savior some were unrealistically hoping for may have been a good thing. “The greatest shift in the relationship between the United States and Africa over the length of the Obama administration has been the increasing recognition among most African countries that foreign aid alone will not drive lasting economic growth and prosperity,” he writes.
Obama will attempt to hammer that message home this week in a trip focused on trade and investment, including a speech at a Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya on Saturday. (Kenya is nicknamed the Silicon Savannah for its emerging tech sector.) But that won’t make the trip less tricky.
Speculation is rampant over whether the president will pay a visit to his ancestral homeland in the country’s west, though U.S. officials are probably already on edge over security concerns so they may not let him stray to far from the agenda. Kenyans have also been pushing back online against U.S. media coverage portraying the country as a hotbed of terrorism ahead of the visit.
Obama has angered some Kenyans by skipping the country on previous trips to Africa. His decision to do so was probably in part driven by a reluctance to be used as a prop in Kenya’s contentious political battles, particularly after the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2008. Before his election, Kenyatta had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence, though the charges were subsequently dropped. Kenyatta will no doubt roll out the red carpet for Obama, though the presence of his deputy William Ruto, who is still under indictment, could be awkward. Kenyatta says his talks with Obama will focus on combating violent extremism, though human rights groups will call on the president to bring up reports that the country is cracking down unjustly on Somalis as part of its counterterrorism efforts. (After Kenya, Obama will pay a visit to Ethiopia where activists are also calling for him to speak out on human rights concerns.)
On Sunday, Obama will give an address on the U.S. relationship with Kenya and its people, “touching on topics such as wildlife trafficking, girls' education and countering violent extremism,” according to the official itinerary. That might not be a hit: Lectures on democracy and corruption from visiting American presidents don’t always go over well. But the big question this time, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision, will be how Obama handles the topic of gay rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, as it is in many countries in Africa, and Obama has clashed with African leaders on the topic in the past. Kenyatta has predicted that gay rights will be a “non-issue” during the visit. Obama hasn’t even gotten there yet and that’s clearly not true.