NAIROBI: US President Barack Obama arrives in his ancestral homeland Kenya late Friday, with a massive security operation under way to protect him from Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants.
Obama, making his first visit as president to his father’s birthplace, will address an entrepreneurship summit and hold talks on trade and investment, security and counter-terrorism, and democracy and human rights.
“Despite its many challenges… Africa is a place of incredible dynamism, some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, extraordinary people, extraordinary resilience,” Obama said in Washington late Wednesday.
“The opportunities are extraordinary, and we just have to break down the stereotypes and the barriers.”
Parts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi will be locked down and airspace closed during the president’s arrival late Friday and his departure late Sunday, when he travels up the Rift Valley to neighboring Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union.
At least 10,000 police officers — roughly one quarter of the entire national force — will be deployed to the capital.
Top of the list of security concerns is Somalia’s Shebab militia, which has staged a string of suicide attacks, massacres and bombings on Kenyan soil, including the bloody attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the heart of the capital nearly two years ago that left 67 dead.
Excitement has been building in Kenya for weeks, with the visit painted as a major boost for the country’s position as an African hub — something that has taken a battering in recent years due to Shebab attacks and political violence that landed Kenyan leaders in the International Criminal Court.
“I need not tell you how eagerly we have all waited for the day, or how keen we all are to make it the most memorable of homecomings,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters this week.
“It’s a vote of confidence for our city and our country,” Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero said.
He has overseen a clean-up campaign in Nairobi, including the filling of potholes, sweeping of streets, the repainting of faded road markings and laying new pavements on once muddy sidewalks.
Obama is celebrated as a hero throughout the country, yet many Kenyans have been disappointed it has taken him until almost the end of his second term in office to make the trip.
A presidential visit to Kenya had been put on ice while Kenyatta faced charges of crimes against humanity for his role in 2007-2008 post-election violence. The ICC has since dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence and accusing Kenya of bribing or intimidating witnesses.
Kenyatta, however, has signalled that his controversial Deputy President William Ruto — who is still on trial at the ICC and is outspokenly homophobic, describing gays as “dirty” — would be present when government officials meet Obama.
Asked whether gay rights would be discussed, Kenyatta said: “That is a non-issue to the people of this country, and it is definitely not on our agenda at all.”
“The fight against terror will be central, we have been working in very close cooperation with American agencies,” Kenyatta said. “Poverty, improved health for our people, better education, better roads, better security, these are our key focuses.”
Counter-terrorism will also be a key topic for discussion, with Nairobi the scene of one of Al-Qaeda’s twin 1998 US embassy bombings.
Obama is due to address an international business summit in Nairobi on Saturday, an event the US embassy itself warned could be “a target for terrorists”.
“The American president is a high-value target so an attack, or even an attempt, would raise the profile of Shebab,” warned Richard Tutah, a Nairobi-based security and terrorism expert.
Mitigating that is an overwhelming security presence in the capital, which regional security analyst Abdullahi Halakhe described as “suffocating”.
Hundreds of American security personnel have arrived in Kenya in recent weeks.
In a press conference in Washington this month Obama bemoaned the heavy security restrictions.
“I will be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president, because I can actually get outside of the hotel room or a conference center,” Obama said.