NAIROBI, Kenya — When Anna Mulli heard that President Obama was planning to visit Africa, she expected him to visit her homeland. Like many of her countrymen, she considers the president a son of Kenya. Obama’s father was Kenyan; many of his relatives, including his grandmother, still live here.
During both the 2008 and 2012 elections, Mulli said she went to church to pray that Obama would win.
“But now he has neglected us,” said Mulli, sighing with disappointment as she entered a downtown Nairobi church for Sunday Mass.
As Obama embarks on his first substantial visit to Africa this week, Kenyans are venting a sense of anger and frustration — on social media, in newspaper editorials, on the streets — that their nation is not on his itinerary. Many had long expected Obama to pay a visit to his father’s ancestral home and allow Kenyans to embrace him, just like the Irish did during his emotional 2011 trip to Ireland, from where his mother’s ancestors hailed.
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Instead, Obama will visit Senegal, South Africa and neighboring Tanzania, whose capital, Dar es Salaam, is less than an hour’s flight from Nairobi.
“Just come and visit your grandma, Obama!” implored one headline of a blog on local radio station Capital FM’s website.
Beneath the surface, the presidential snub, as many Kenyans describe it, has spawned soul searching over Kenyans’ choice of leadership and whether the nation is still America’s main ally in East Africa. Some even fear the snub could make it more difficult for Kenya to attract foreign investment and tourists, dealing a blow to Kenya’s economy.
Many Kenyans say the U.S. is punishing them for electing President Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice president, William Ruto, in March. Both men have been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of orchestrating ethnic mobs to kill and pillage during Kenya’s previous elections and are scheduled to face trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.
During the run-up to the elections, then assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson publicly warned that Kenyans’ “choices have consequences.”
Last week, deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes said the “Kenyan people hold a special place in the president’s heart” and the United States would work with Kenyatta. But he also made clear that the ICC charges were a concern.
“It just wasn’t the best time for the president to travel to Kenya at this point,” Rhodes told reporters in Washington.
Obama would not be the first Western leader reluctant to meet Kenyatta and Ruto. Last month, at a London meeting to assist Somalia, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to be photographed with Kenyatta, according to British news reports, apparently fearing a backlash if Kenyatta was found guilty of the ICC charges.
In interviews, Kenyans said that despite their disappointment they understood the reasons why Obama is skipping their country on this visit.
“I really wished he would have come to Kenya, to his roots,” said Sam Ombeki, 55, a community development organizer. “But let’s not pretend either. There are a lot of questions about the integrity of our leadership. Obama doesn’t want to taint his name.”
Still, Ombeki said that Obama could have found way to appease Kenyans, if only symbolically. “It’s a humiliation for the country,” he said. “Obama could have stopped in Kenya for one hour to greet people at the airport.”
Other Kenyans said that the White House has overblown the ICC issue and that Obama should respect the fact that Kenyans legitimately elected Kenyatta and Ruto.
“The Hague case is just an excuse not to come,” Mulli said. “They are only suspects who are innocent until proven guilty. If they were guilty of such crimes would we have elected them? Nobody would blame Obama if he visited Kenya.”
In his book, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama speaks fondly of Kenya and his meetings with relatives. He last visited Kenya when he was a senator from Illinois. During the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, millions of Kenyans celebrated his victory.
But Kenyans’ enthusiasm for Obama during last year’s U.S. presidential elections was more muted than in 2008. Obama had visited the continent only once: for 20 hours in Ghana, where he delivered a memorable speech about his vision for Africa and how his administration would engage with it.
But many Kenyans, as well as other Africans, say Obama has not been a strong advocate for addressing the continent’s problems, unlike his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “It is a bit of a disappointment,” said Kevin Otako, 31, a management consultant. “He is one of our own. I thought his presidency would bring more investments. So far that hasn’t happened.”
Still, it is quite common to see cars plastered with Obama campaign bumper sticks. There are bars, restaurants and barber shops named after Obama, as well as little boys named Barack.
The visit to Tanzania has, in particular, hit a nerve with Kenyans. They have long viewed its neighbor to the south as a smaller and poorer cousin.
“We don’t see why he needs to go to Tanzania,” Otako said. “Kenya is much more developed than Tanzania, and it’s much more secure. It’s embarrassing for Kenya.”