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Obama in Kenya? No time soon

People of Kogelo, the home of Obama's father, feel snubbed - but the decision is purely political.
Last modified: 29 Jun 2013 18:12
The people of Kogelo feel they have a connection to Obama.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto election in March has caused tension between Kenya and the international community - the pair are facing charges at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over post-election violence in 2008, which both deny.

In the run-up to the March election, US assistant secretary of State Johnnie Carson warned Kenyans against voting for them, saying "choices have consequences". That infamous statement has now become quite the slogan in Kenya.  

The United Kingdom also indicated that it would avoid all but essential contact with the pair. 

And now the much talked-about "snub" by the US president. Debate on television, social media and radio is whether Barack Obama's decision really matters.

To the people of Kogelo in Western Kenya it does, and on a more personal level. Kogelo is where Obama’s father was born.

The people of Kogelo celebrated his 2008 victory euphorically, and did not lose hope when chose Ghana and Egypt for his first brief visit to Africa.

This time however, they are more than disappointed. An elder summed it up for me: "Deep down we consider him ours, he should have come, even for an hour. We would have embraced him and given him the highest traditional honor," he said.

But they also know that it’s more complicated than that.

Many understand that although Kenyatta and Ruto were democratically elected, leaders such as Obama will keep away from Kenya until the charges against Kenyatta and  Ruto are resolved.

Even if Obama only visited Kogelo, the political backlash would not be worth the visit.

Kenya’s government is downplaying the significance of the "snub". Its spokesman, Muthui Kariuki, told me that it does not mean that the relationship between Kenya and the US is shaky. In fact, it has never been better were his words – but of course, he’s a spin doctor.

Even if it is damaged, international relations expert David Kikaya argues that it is time Kenya fostered new alliances. Countries in Asia and eastern Europe have shown their interest in new relationships.  China has made remarkable inroads, with Chinese contractors constructing most of new roads in Kenya and the country’s national broadcaster CCTV basing its Africa broadcast centre here. There are reports that President Kenyatta will soon be paying China a state visit.

China’s presence here cannot be downplayed.

But the same analyst argues that though moving east is a good strategic move, the government should be careful not to open up too quickly or too widely. It’s all about national interests and Kenya does not want to end up being the dumping ground for all of China’s substandard products. That is already happening with electronics, medicine and other goods.

He also warns that it might be unwise to turn too much to the east at the expense of the West. Britain's historical interests in Kenya run deep, and they cannot be easily dislodged.

In Kogelo, I met Sera Obama, who is the US president's grandmother. She’s an icon in this part of the world - everyone wants her to make appearances in their celebrations, fundraising events and funerals. This is what she told me: "My grandson is an American first, he is employed by the American people and what he does is in the interest of the the US."

And that really is the crux of the matter. Right now it is not in the interest of the US to have the president visiting Kenya and until that matter of the International Criminal Court is cleared, that appears to be the way it will stay.