A massive security operation swung into place last night to protect US President Barack Obama during his visit to Kenya, which has been frequently targeted by al-Shabaab Islamist militants based in neighbouring Somalia.
Ahead of Mr Obama’s arrival yesterday evening, large numbers of security forces patrolled the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Several US military aircraft were spotted flying overhead. There have also been significant military attacks on militant targets in Somalia in recent weeks. Major Nairobi roads will be temporarily closed and authorities said the international airport will be closed at times coinciding with Mr Obama’s arrival and his departure on Sunday for Ethiopia.
Safaricom, a mobile network operator, warned of disruptions while Mr Obama is in Nairobi to meet entrepreneurs and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.
“We recognise that as the most protected individual in the world, there will be some security measures undertaken by his team which could include the temporary disruption of mobile signals close to where the president is at any given time,” Safaricom said.
Al-Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaeda, has conducted major attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall and an April attack in Garissa town that killed around 150 people.
This month, Somali officials said African Union and local troops seized Bardhere, one of the last major towns held by extremists in Somalia’s south-west. A militant commander was also killed in a US drone strike, according to officials.
A Somali intelligence official said use of surveillance drones has increased in the past two weeks.
“They are watching militants’ movements towards Kenya so closely,” said the official. Mr Obama’s schedule includes an address on Sunday at a Nairobi stadium to be broadcast live on Kenyan radio and television.
US ambassador Robert Godec said attendance would be by invitation only to representatives from “a wide range of Kenyan society” despite speculation that huge crowds would gather.
“We discourage people from coming to the venue if they’re not explicitly invited,” Mr Godec said.
Mr Obama, whose father was Kenyan, will also have time to meet relatives, said the ambassador. Sarah Obama, the matriarch of his family, flew from the western Kenyan city of Kisumu to Nairobi yesterday intending to meet Mr Obama.
She was the second wife of Mr Obama’s grandfather and helped bring up his father, Barack Obama snr. The president referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, Dreams from My Father.
“Today, I am going to talk to him face to face,” Sarah, who is in her 90s, said before boarding the Nairobi-bound plane. She said she would try to convince Obama to visit his father’s grave in the western village of Kogelo, though US officials have said the president would not be travelling to the town.
“I will leave it to God,” said Mrs Obama, who walks with the aid of a cane.
Before he left Washington, Mr Obama told the BBC he would continue to deliver his “blunt message” to African leaders about gay rights and discrimination.
“I am not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender,” he said.
He also agreed that some African governments, including Kenya’s, needed to improve their records on human rights and democracy.
However, he defended his decision to engage and visit those governments.
“Well, they’re not ideal institutions. But what we found is, that when we combined blunt talk with engagement, that gives us the best opportunity to influence and open up space for civil society,” he said.