WHEN American president Barack Obama arrives in Africa this week, there will be one notable omission from his travel itinerary: Kenya, the birthplace of his father and home to many of his relatives.
Concerns about Kenya’s political situation have trumped Mr Obama’s family ties. Kenya is an important strategic partner for the US in East Africa, but the country’s new president is facing charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Uhuru Kenyatta is accused of orchestrating the ethnic violence that marred the country’s 2007 election – more than 1,000 people were killed.
Ahead of Mr Kenyatta’s victory earlier this year, a top Obama administration official warned Kenyans that their “choices have consequences” – a remark that now appears prescient, given the president’s decision to skip making a stop in his ancestral homeland.
“The optics of that, of a presidential trip, are not what he wants to be demonstrating right now,” said Jennifer Cooke, Africa director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The president will instead visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, all countries that fit more neatly into the democracy and good governance message he will be keen to promote during his week-long trip. Mr Obama, along with first lady Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, is scheduled to depart Washington tomorrow.
The White House did consider a visit to Kenya when they contemplated an African tour during Mr Obama’s first term, before Mr Kenyatta’s election. That trip never happened, but Mr Obama pledged he would visit Kenya before leaving office.
“I’m positive that before my service as president is completed I will visit Kenya again,” he said in a 2010 interview with Kenya’s state broadcaster.
White House officials say they respect the right of Kenyans to choose their own leaders. But deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the US also has “a commitment to accountability and justice”.
Mr Rhodes said: “Given the fact that Kenya is in the aftermath of their election and the new government has come into place and is going to be reviewing these issues with the ICC and the international community, it just wasn’t the best time for the president to travel to Kenya.”
Kenya’s government has been muted in its response to the US president’s decision to leave the country off his itinerary.
“It’s for the Americans to decide where Obama goes,” Kenyan government spokesman Muthui Kariuki said. “There are 54 nations on the African continent and he’s only visiting three, so I don’t see the real big deal about not going to Kenya.”
But Sam Ochieng, a political activist who lives in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, said Mr Obama was sending a message about Kenya’s political problems by putting democratic values ahead of his personal connections.
“It would be a shame for an American president to come to Kenya and shake dirty hands,” Mr Ochieng said.
Mr Obama’s ties with Kenya are well-known. Barack Obama senior was born in the western Kenyan village of Kogelo, moved to the US to study, and met and married the president’s mother in Hawaii. He left the family soon after his son was born.
The president made his first trip to Kenya in 1988, after his father’s death, and wrote extensively about the visit in his memoir Dreams From My Father.
“My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand,” he wrote.
The president visited Kenya twice more, most recently in 2006. He was greeted by cheering crowds in the capital, Nairobi, and in Kogelo, where he spent time with his grandmother and visited his father’s grave. He and his wife also publicly took HIV tests, part of their campaign at the time to reduce the stigma surrounding the virus.
But a televised speech criticising the Kenyan government for failing to curb corruption or instil trust in its people earned him a cold shoulder from the country’s leadership.
Kenya’s presidential spokesman said at the time that Mr Obama was ignorant of Kenyan politics and had yet to form an understanding of foreign policy.