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February 17, 2019

Why Obama failed us all

Former US President Barack Obama listens to Auma Obama as he tours the Sauti Kuu resource centre near his ancestral home in Nyangoma Kogelo village in Siaya county, western Kenya July 16, 2018. /REUTERS
Former US President Barack Obama listens to Auma Obama as he tours the Sauti Kuu resource centre near his ancestral home in Nyangoma Kogelo village in Siaya county, western Kenya July 16, 2018. /REUTERS

This week, former US President Barack Obama was in Kenya. He came to carry out what turned out to be a family affair travelling to his ancestral home in Kogelo and opening a facility associated with his sister Dr Auma Obama.

But the visit brought sharp focus to his legacy as American President and what he did to for the home of his forbears and also the entire continent of Africa.

 Perhaps the writing was on his face. He seemed subdued, if not guardedly oblique, as he landed in Kenya after being away for three years.

He appeared the reluctant visitor, who could not wait to get out and go back whence he cometh. He was not his usual self and in everything, from his body language to his speech, he did not quite reflect the charm and ease that the occasion demanded of one who was visiting the land of his father’s birth.

 There was so much love in the air for him but this quickly dissipated into disappointment from the manner his visit was handled. There seemed an urgency to shorten or perhaps quicken everything he had come to do before he could leave.

Many had expected he would address them perhaps in an open stadium or even visit his ancestral home in an open motorcade but that was not to be.

I must, however, thank his sister Auma, who pulled a major feat in getting him to come. There are those who are questioning exactly what was the sum total of benefit his presidency has been to Africans in general and Kenyans in particular.


November 4, 2008 was the proudest day for the world. The US had elected the very first Black president and African-Americans had seemingly overcome decades, even centuries of racial prejudice. It was a great time to be black and even greater to be Kenyan or an African for that matter.

In Kenya, the news of his victory was greeted with much pride. Suddenly he had more cousins than could be counted and never mind that a good number of them were not even Luo.

A visiting American friend brought with him an Obama campaign badge and my son, then still young, happily donned it going to church.

His riveting speeches were replayed a thousand times and I downloaded quite a few of them, which I still have. It was a new dawn of great promise, not just for Africa but also for the world at large.

 Obama took his presidency with stride. Kenyans and indeed most Africans believed he was ‘our man in the White House.’ Expectations were as diverse as there were people in Africa.

A Ugandan friend I met in Europe told me the moment Obama was declared US President, a janitor at Makerere was so overjoyed that he ordered a beer and told the waiter “Mpa biya Obama aja kusasula” (get me a beer, Obama will pay).

 Simply put, the expectations of many were high and sometimes out of this world. At least for this janitor it was free beer. And many forgot he was indeed an American President first and not African.

Somehow those expectations continued to linger even after he left office. Many of those who lined up the streets to meet him had their own list of things they wanted him to do for them, from schools to universities to libraries to whatever. Perhaps Obama should have invested more in managing expectations since an innocent visit like the one he had only served to whip up expectations, when in fact he can only do so much.


Of course, every move he made with regard to the Africans and even his fellow African-Americans were closely monitored by the White supremacists ready to shout hoarse — “now we know he’s bad!”

This pharisaic faultfinding dogged his administration to the end, and it did not stop when he left. He was probably the one American President who endured lots of racial slurs and even attitudes to him by many American White working class were laced with racial condescension.

US President Donald Trump rose to national prominence largely by being the voice of the ‘Birther’ movement, who argued that Obama was a British citizen and could not have been American because his father was a British citizen. They forgot that the British colonials never considered Kenyans British citizens but only British subjects.

Despite publicly showing his birth certificate and enduring an unending debate on his ability as President, the debate continued. In many ways the current US President fashioned his presidential campaign as an answer to American apprehensions about Obama’s presidency.

In it, he saw and continues to see nothing good. This attitude has been blamed on Obama’s slow response to issues that affected racial minorities, African Americans and indeed, the Africans. He chose instead to give prominence to the LGBT rights and they never had it better under any presidency than Obama’s.


He gave Kenya a wide berth and did not visit during his first term, only visiting when he was left with two years in office. While Kenyans still appreciated that, nothing much came from his relationship with Kenya. Besides, he spectacularly failed to keep his promise to come with his wife the next time he came.

Michelle Obama has given Kenya the cold shoulder and social media has compared her to a woman who hated her husband’s rural home and in-law and preferred to remain in the comfort of their city residence rather than spend time in smoky rural homes. Their two daughters have not set foot in the land of their ancestry.

 A certain Kalenjin man, Felix Kiprono, offered 50 cows for Malia’s hand, including 70 sheep and 30 goats. Kiprono was distorting the market with such astronomical offers (anything between five to 15 cows will get you a wife among the Kalenjins depending on several factors).

However, a Maasai man Jeff ole Kishau quickly upped the ante by offering 500 cows. The offers did not stop there. These offers were probably more symbolic gestures of goodwill to the Obamas than a display of wealth. They failed to pick up on it and his inability to bring his family along, reflected badly on his latest visit.

And when he came he seemed so concerned at his personal safety and did not look like someone going back home. He looked so nervous being here and could not wait to get out. Decoy convoys ensured that he evaded the people who turned up in large numbers to greet him. This was not someone returning home, he was just making a technical appearance.


Obama openly regretted supporting or rather ordering the removal of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. This was perhaps the continent’s strongest advocate against western imperialism and neo-colonialism.

 His people were well kept and the standard of living of Libyans was one of the highest in the world, not to mention the household incomes that were a subject of envy. Obama initiated a series of events that culminated in the downfall of his regime. To this day, Libya remains in a state of internal conflict, with sectarian violence that has led to tens of thousands dead and disrupted oil exports. Libya is one of Africa’s largest exporters of crude oil and disruption in exports led to an immediate spike in prices and that means the cost of living rises.

Besides, Libya is now the global hub of human trafficking and slavery and is the Launchpad for illegal migration into Europe. Thousands of young Africans fleeing poverty back at home (which Obama could have done more say through AGOA and similar initiatives), end up in Libya, where they are held in slave camps before taking rickety boats trying to reach Europe. Many thousands have died in the process. Gaddafi would not have allowed this to happen if he was alive and well.

 Unlike other American presidents, who facilitated foreign conflicts that turned out to be massive disasters, Obama readily owned up to his mistake in Libya and called it his ‘biggest foreign policy regret.’

Under him the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act initiated by Bill Clinton continued but not with the prominence it deserved and at some point, it appeared to be under threat. He kept up appearances with his ‘Trade not Aid’ mantra in regard to Africa but in real essence, the impact of AGOA was not any better under him than under other US presidents.

 He managed to give it another 10 years from 2016. But to his credit, he shrank American aid to Africa. I am a firm believer that aid has never and will never be good for Africa. According to a BBC analysis, in 2015 Obama spent more money on Afghanistan and Israel ($8.6 billion) than on 42 African nations that received a combined total of $8 billion.

There was little American investment in the continent.  I do not need not say that the Chinese quickly took advantage of the gap and their investment and loans to Africa was far higher than that, and they obviously took advantage of American intransigence to the continent.

Although he did his part in fighting terror groups such as al Shabaab and Boko Haram, pundits feel he should have done more. Then perhaps his lasting legacy would have to do with his investment in the youth of Africa though his Young African Leadership Initiative. The programme, which enrolled hundreds of thousands of young people, was billed a resounding success for Obama.


At the start of his second term in 2013, Obama brought about the Power Africa Initiative, which was meant to double electricity connections using, among other things, renewable sources.

Today, the true impact of the project is highly in doubt despite the fact that many Kenyan homes are today lighting M-Kopa Solar through Safaricom and other initiatives.

The generated capacity (about 2,000 megawatts) remains low compared to the anticipated target of 30,000 megawatts. And now the Trump administration is completely mum if not indifferent to the whole idea. The sustainability of the project is now been brought to question as indeed it may just suffer rollbacks if Trump continues in the trajectory he is on right now.

It is believed Obama’s cautious approach to matters national and international may have given rise to the kind of presidency Trump has brought out. Trump ran on a campaign of making America great again and pretty much rolled back the changes Obama had worked so hard to bring about.

Trump, who is largely impervious to public or international opinion, belittled everything Obama did. Some have rated Obama as the 12th best US President ever. However, Trump is now eroding much of his legacy. Initially, I held the view that Trump had been elected so that Americans could appreciate the good president they had in Obama.

But it is turning out that his caution in approach to African and African-American matters was in itself quite ill-advised. It is better to have been criticised for doing more for Africa than to endure such recriminations as witnessed in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign following a post-Obama spate of extra-judicial killings by police.


When Obama stood to speak to a mammoth crowd in South Africa on Tuesday, he was commemorating Nelson Mandela, who was a friend of Gaddafi. In fact, the two were close friends the latter having done his part in helping crumble apartheid.

While Gaddafi welcomed Obama’s election, he warned him not to suffer from Inferiority Complex. Speaking in June 2008, Gaddafi said, “We fear that Obama will feel that, because he is Black with an inferiority complex, this will make him behave worse than the whites.”

He continued, “This will be a tragedy. We tell him to be proud of himself as a Black and feel that all Africa is behind him because if he sticks to this inferiority complex, he will have a worse foreign policy than the whites had in the past.”

Well, Gaddafi did not know that he was speaking to the man who would eventually order his removal and he died on Mashujaa day in 2011. Some believe Obama had no place speaking in that occasion for what he did to Gaddafi and what his fall has done to the young people of Africa.

Some believe he is a war criminal. Others don’t know where to place him in the grand scheme of things. The iconization of Obama in Kenyan minds must be tempered with reality checks that he may not be seeing things the way we do. His presidency was long on symbolism and short on actual deliveries, not just in Africa but also in America itself.

Yes, the universities and schools will come, but it will be our own effort, money and time that will bring them about – not Obama. The future of Africa is in our hands not on those of Obama.

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