Welcome back, President Obama

It’s been nine years since President Barack Obama last visited his ancestral homeland, & when he returns to Kenya this month to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship summit he will be warmly received.

ObamaNine years ago, a forest of lovingly crafted banners shouted out, “Karibu Nyumbani, Senator Obama!” (Welcome Home, Senator Obama) when the pencil-slim US Senator from Illinois toured Kenya as part his four-country Africa trip to raise awareness of AIDS.

This July another forest of banners will read: “Karibu Nyumbani, Rais Obama!” when he returns, as he promised, to his ancestral homeland for what is likely to be his last visit to the continent before he steps down from office in January.

He will be coming to Kenya to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit co-hosted by Kenya and the US, running from 24-26 July.

These nine years, a short interval in the lives of most of us, have packed several lifetimes of experience into the life of Barack Hussein Obama. When he was asked if he had presidential ambitions on that first visit, he replied: “The day after my election to the US Senate, somebody asked me, am I running in 2008? I said at that time: ‘No. And nothing so far,” he said, stressing those last two words, “has changed my mind.”

So what did change his mind? There are those who are close to him who believe that, in fact, the seeds of his Presidential ambitions were sown on that trip. It was here that he fully realised his own extraordinary magnetism and his almost superhuman ability to move huge masses of people.

A Reuter’s reporter at the time was more prescient than perhaps he could ever hope to be when he wrote: If Senator Barack Obama is ever thinking of running for President — or changing career to that of rock star — he got excellent practice in Nairobi on Friday…”
Another report says that ‘Moses-like’, “he parted the sea of people that surrounded him on every turn, armed with only a smile”. Yet other observers talk of his increasing ‘President-like conduct’ as the tour went on. He visited his Nyangoma-Kogelo, the village where his father grew up and where both his father and grandfather are buried. He toured the school built on land bequeathed by his father and renamed in his honour and spoke to the students, inspiring them to greater efforts. George Mugo, a student, told the press later that the results have improved dramatically because Obama has shown that success does not come from one’s background and that with hard work, anyone can ‘rise to higher dimensions.’

Obama’s 80-year-old grandmother, Sarah, astonished the American media by casually walking to the market with her products, including the best ghee in the area, as she had always done for years, unfazed by the massive clamour that surrounded her grandson. This was a human-interest story like no other as far as the media were concerned. Sarah now runs a foundation for orphaned and vulnerable children and seems as strong as she ever was.

The young Senator showed exceptional political skills and knowledge by ensuring that he did not seem to endorse political candidates from ‘his region’ against the others; he visited the biggest slum in Kenya, Kibera, and subjected himself and his wife Michelle to AIDS tests to encourage others to do the same; he flew to remote Wajir on the border with Somalia and Ethiopia that had been hit by drought, and assured the people there that he was aware of their plight and that help was on its way.

He spoke to students, politicians, business-people, teachers, farmers and workers with the same concern and intensity. He brought hope, and the people loved him for it. He could see that they were ready to follow him but he wisely deferred to the political masters in Kenya. Many of them were to later admit that the young Senator has shown them advanced mastery of the art of politics and how to win hearts and minds.

Was this the inspiration behind his decision to run for US Presidency after all? Had this visit given him the confidence and allowed him to hone his political skills for the bigger challenge ahead? Should he throw his hat into the ring despite all the odds being against him? Did Kenya, in fact, ‘make’ the next leader of the most powerful nation on earth? There are many who think so.

44th President of  the US
Two years later, he was being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States after one of the most agonising and emotionally charged election campaigns of modern times. As he raised his right hand to take the oath of office, an event watched live by billions of people around the world, there were scenes of ecstatic celebrations not only in the United States itself but around the world.

Some saw his election, as a black man in an almost entirely white power structure and in the teeth of racist inspired fury, as a miracle. He was hailed world-wide as the ‘great leader of hope’.

Obama’s inaugural speech was telecast live throughout most of the world, drawing record audiences. When he promised to ‘begin the work of rebuilding America,’ and painted a vivid picture of a peaceful, prosperous, progressive world under the leadership of the United States, there were tears of joy in places as far flung from each other as Wajir in North Kenya (which he had visited on his earlier trip) and among the huge crowds that gathered to listen to him all over Germany.

He promised to return the lustre to the image of America that had become badly soiled by the wars in the Middle East and the conduct of some of its fighting forces; and a world that had grown weary of the politics of hate and war heaved a sigh of relief.

Not since John F. Kennedy in his pomp had a national leader so galvanised and inspired so many people around the world to such an extent. I watched the speech live in Cape Town, South Africa. People hung on his every sentence.

When it was over, strangers hugged each other spontaneously and the partying went on all night and most of the next day. Toasts were made to ‘Our Son’. His victory was seen as a victory for all the billions around the world who feel powerless and vulnerable. Now they had a champion – the most powerful figure in the world – and his roots were in Africa. It was a thrilling time to be an African and a very special feeling to be a Kenyan.

Was that Obama’s finest hour? Who can tell until history has applied its age-old wisdom and made its judgement, perhaps many years from now? What we do know is that Obama inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and ugly external wars that were getting nastier by the day among a list of some of the prickliest problems ever heaped on an incoming US President. He was also faced with a wall of internal opposition and the sprouting of a host of rabid terror organisations scattered around the globe.

Returning home
Now, nine years later, a very different Barack Obama returns to his ancestral home and the scene of what was his first charismatic and political triumph. The slim, fresh-faced, bright-eyed young man who gave his security team nightmares by plunging into the thickest parts of the crowds that had come to adore him, will be guarded more heavily than any other person on earth when he moves on Kenyan soil.

The effects of being run through the mangle of a US Presidency are now etched in the lines of his face and his hair has some grey in it. Where he once bounded about like a young lion, he now walks and talks with the gravitas of his very high responsibilities. But he remains erect and has kept his figure in good order. When the occasion arises, the mischief returns to his eyes as he makes jokes to cut through the tension of his daily life. And sometimes, not as often as it once did, that old magical smile, like the sun breaking out from behind dark clouds, still has the power to light up billions of lives.

Although he has toured Africa four times before, he has never visited Kenya as President of the United States. In 2013, while on his trip to Tanzania, South Africa and Senegal, he turned to an unhappy Kenyan who wanted to know why he had ignored his father’s homeland and promised to visit Kenya before the end of his term: “If in three years and seven months I am not in Kenya, then you can fault me for not following through on my promise,” he said. It now looks certain that on this score at least, he cannot be faulted.
Welcome home, Mr President. Karibu nyumbani, Rais Obama!

“Finally, ethnic-based tribal politics has to stop. It is rooted in the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one’s family, tribe, or circle with little regard for the public good. It stifles innovation and fractures the fabric of the society. Instead of opening businesses and engaging in commerce, people come to rely on patronage and payback as a means of advancing. Instead of unifying the country to move forward on solving problems, it divides neighbour from neighbour.”
Obama at the University of Nairobi, August 2006.

How much will President Obama’s trip to Kenya, which is expected to last only one day, cost?
There had been speculation earlier that, following terror attacks in parts of Kenya, the White House would cancel the trip. Word is that the President was insistent that his last trip to Africa would be to his ancestral homeland, Kenya.

Although at the time of writing the exact programme of his visit has not been released – and it is likely that the White House and the Kenyan authorities will play this close to their chests for security reasons, it seems that he will be in the country for only one day. This will increase the pressure on the logistics and security arrangements as millions of Kenyans are expected to take to the streets to welcome their hero, if his visit to Kenya, back in 2006 is anything to go by.

Official figures have not been released, but clearly the extra security required following the terror attacks in the country will trigger much higher costs. The President will travel to Kenya on Air Force One. He will be accompanied by a massive entourage and a phalanx of armour-plated vehicles including the President’s bulletproof limousine known as ‘The Beast’, a military ambulance and communications vans packed with hi-tech devices.

It is expected that some 250 heavily armed Secret Service agents, teams of sniffer dogs and dozens of advisers will shadow Obama to Kenya. There will be a team of White House cooks, and everything he eats or drinks will pass through security checks.

It is believed that a contingent of Secret Service personnel are already in Kenya and will join forces with US Marines and specialised FBI officers working from the heavily fortified US embassy in Nairobi.

How much will all this cost? Commentators in the US have estimated that the security bill for the one-day trip will be around US$60 million. But no one has worked out the value of the trip – which, in money terms, could well dwarf the price-tag. Perhaps that’s the difference between accountants and world leaders.

The Global Entrepreneurship Summit

Nairobi, 24-26 July 2015
President Barack Obama will be coming to Kenya to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The Kenyan government is co-hosting the 2015 event with the US. This is the first time the meeting will be held in sub-Saharan Africa.

Obama will attend either on the 25 or 26 July in the company of Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya. He will also hold bilateral talks with Kenyatta on trade between their two countries and security and terrorism issues.

Launched by President Obama in 2009, the annual summit has grown to include high-level
meetings and networking events, strategic workshops and pitch competitions. It’s a chance to celebrate startups and more established ventures, and unlock the world’s economic potential.

Announcing his intention of visiting Kenya earlier in the year, Obama said: “While I’m there, we’re going to participate in the Sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit. And I’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the brilliant young entrepreneurs from across Africa and around the world.”

Through the President’s Spark Global Entrepreneurship initiative the US government has set a goal to attract more than US$1 billion in new investments to support business and social entrepreneurs by the end of 2017. Half will be raised for women and young entrepreneurs (those under 35).

Obama said that encouraging the spirit of entrepreneurship can help tackle some of the greatest challenges around the world.

“Poverty alone does not cause terrorism or sectarian violence, but investments in youth entrepreneurship and education are some of our best antidotes that we have to that kind of disorder. So all of this matters to us – to our shared prosperity and to our shared security.”
He added that since he hosted the first Global Entrepreneurship Summit back in 2010, it has helped to train and empower thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs.

Obama also said that the programme has helped small businesses expand into new markets, mobilised new investments, connected emerging innovators with mentors and networks, and expanded access to capital.

“I’m also urging governments and companies and organisations and individuals to make their own commitments. Whether that’s through training and mentorship programmes, or helping entrepreneurs access capital and connect to markets, or improving educational opportunities and exchanges, everybody has a part to play. Everybody can do something,” he said.

More than 6000 people, from small-business owners and mentors to policymakers and investors, participated in last year’s summit which was held in Morocco. Obama was represented by Vice-President Joe Biden. Over 1200 delegates are expected to attend the Nairobi summit. The aim behind this year’s GES is on attracting new investments for entrepreneurs, especially women and the youth.

Secretary of State John Kerry explains: “The United States has learned through its own experience that entrepreneurship is an essential driver of prosperity and of freedom.” Entrepreneurs create opportunities for themselves and others. They unlock economic growth, create jobs and empower entire nations. Perhaps more importantly, they often find solutions to social problems.