NAIROBI, Kenya: US President Barack Obama arrived in the Kenyan capital Nairobi late Friday, making his first visit to the country of his father’s birth since his election as president.
A massive security operation was under way in Nairobi, with parts of the usually traffic-clogged capital locked down and airspace also closed for the president’s landing and his scheduled departure late Sunday for neighbouring Ethiopia.
Top of the list of security concerns is Somalia’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Shebab, who have staged a string of suicide attacks, massacres and bombings on Kenyan soil, including the siege of the Westgate shopping mall in the heart of the capital nearly two years ago that left 67 dead.
Obama was greeted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta with a handshake and embrace as he stepped off Air Force One, at the start of a weekend visit during which he will address an entrepreneurship summit and hold bilateral talks on trade and investment, counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights.
The president’s half-sister Auma was also on the tarmac to greet him and travel in the bespoke, bomb-proof presidential limousine, nicknamed “The Beast”, for the drive to the hotel in the city centre, where he dined with members of his extended Kenyan family.
Throngs of Kenyans lined the route of the convoy, cheering, whistling and waving as Obama’s motorcade sped by and a helicopter circled overhead. At least 10,000 police officers, roughly a quarter of the entire national force, have been deployed to the capital.
Excitement has been building in Kenya for weeks, with the visit painted as a major boost for the east African nation’s position as a regional 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.
The visit is also the first ever to Kenya by a sitting US president.
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 has signalled that his controversial Deputy President William Ruto, still on trial at the ICC and outspokenly homophobic — having describing gays as “dirty” — would be present when government officials meet Obama.
Ruto, however, was conspicuous in his absence from the greeting party at the airport. Obama is also travelling without the First Lady.
Asked earlier this week whether gay rights would be discussed, Kenyatta insisted it was “a non-issue”.
But Obama, in an interview with the BBC just ahead of the visit, said he was “not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, on the basis of religion, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender”, and that this would be “part and parcel of the agenda”.
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 and the country’s Muslim-majority regions facing a major Shebab recruitment drive.
Obama’s first official engagement in Nairobi is an address to an international business summit in Nairobi on Saturday, an event the US embassy itself warned could be “a target for terrorists”.
He is also due to hold bilateral talks and a joint news conference with Kenyatta later Saturday, and deliver a keynote address to the country on Sunday. In Ethiopia he will be the first US leader to address the African Union.
He is not scheduled, however, to visit family relatives or his father’s grave in the village of Kogelo in western Kenya, and Obama himself bemoaned the heavy security restrictions earlier this month.
“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 centre,” Obama said.
Obama is linked to his Kenyan family via his father Barack senior, a pipe-smoking economist who Obama has admitted he “never truly” knew. He walked out when Obama was just two and died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982, aged 46.