Obama has affirmed his African family roots. But with Kenya's leaders facing ICC trials this fall, a trip to Nairobi was probably a non-starter.
Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
As President Barack Obama embarks on a three-nation African tour, Kenya is in an uproar, with citizens angry that the White House will not visit their country despite Mr. Obama's strong ancestral connections here.
Obama arrives on the continent today on a visit to neighboring Tanzania, Senegal, and South Africa – which has prompted talk increases about whether the first black American president may visit ailing Nelson Mandela, the first black president of formerly white-ruled South Africa.
However, the Africa jaunt doesn't include Kenya, birthplace of Obama's father and regarded as a key ally of the West -- most likely since Kenya's newly elected president faces an international criminal trial this fall, making a visit awkward for many reasons.
For the ordinary Kenyan, that doesn't make an Air Force One flyover any easier to swallow.
The late Barack Hussein Obama Sr. was born in Kenya and is considered a son of the land. In the popular view here, that also makes Obama a son of the land, leading to excitement and pride when the senator from Illinois was elected as the first black occupant of the White House.
In Nyang’oma-Kogelo, the village of Obama's father, about 258 miles west of Nairobi, locals have a deeply sentimental attachment to Obama.
Sarah Obama, the president’s 91-year-old step-grandmother, and other relatives live in the village, which he visited while in 2006, while serving as the Illinois senator.
What's mostly blocking an emotional native son moment is that Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, elected in March, face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
The charges stem from post-election violence after the nation's vote in 2007-08. Mr. Kenyatta’s trial is set to begin in November, while Mr. Ruto’s will start in September. Both leaders deny the charges.
“The US is cautious with Kenya because of the ICC cases," says Gerald Majany, a peace and conflict lecturer at the African Nazarene University in Nairobi. "I think coming to Kenya at this time, Obama would have jeopardized his country’s principles of democracy,”
Yet Kenyans are voicing disappointments in interviews, radios and the social media. Many see this as a “snub” and fear it will lower global interest in Kenya, hurting investments and tourism.
“Kenyans are not happy that he is bypassing his ancestral land. He is supposed to be our best friend and I think it’s not happening. I think there is more than ICC. He failed to visit in his first term when there were no such cases. Is he displeased with his roots?” says Moses Kinyanjui, a lawyer in Nairobi.
The Obama uproar appeared to peak this week when Chris Kirubi, a leading Kenyan entrepreneur, announced that he turned down an invitation to meet Obama in neighboring Tanzania for a meeting that would include a number of other Kenyans.
“The fact that he has Kenyan roots and is not coming means a lot,” said Mr. Kirubi.
Obama himself has affirmed his African roots on many occasions, not the least of which was in the widely read "Dreams from my Father," something of an autobiography. In a brief visit to Ghana in 2009, he stated: "I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story."