President Obama Faces Political Minefield as he Begins Tour of Africa on Friday Night

A portrait of US president Barack Obama and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta painted by Joackim Ndalo (right) and his son Dominic. Kenyatta faced trial at the ICC for his alleged role in the 2007-8 post-election violence, in which at least 1,100 died. (Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/Demotix/Corbis)
A portrait of US president Barack Obama and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta painted by Joackim Ndalo (right) and his son Dominic. Kenyatta faced trial at the ICC for his alleged role in the 2007-8 post-election violence, in which at least 1,100 died. (Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/Demotix/Corbis)

Everyone thought Francis Oduor was dead. In fact the Kenyan international footballer had fled into the bush, walked 6km and gone into hiding after his house was torched. When he resurfaced, people were shocked and ashamed. “I was like the walking dead,” he recalls. “Everyone recoiled at the sight of me.”

Like many survivors of the post-election violence in 2007-8 that claimed at least 1,100 lives here, Oduor feels that justice has not been done because no senior politician has been held to account. He therefore refuses to join in the state-sponsored euphoria around Barack Obama’s “homecoming” to Kenya, which begins on Friday night when Air Force One lands in east Africa’s biggest economy.

It will be Obama’s first visit to the land of his father as American president and a far cry from a 1988 trip when his luggage got lost. He will be greeted by the Stars and Stripes flying all over the capital, Nairobi, and giant billboards and paintings bearing his face with slogans such as “Welcome home”. Last-minute beautification projects include the painting of street kerbs and planting of flowers and grass, while 10,000 police officers will protect the honoured guest.

Yet beneath the shiny surface lies a political minefield. Obama, ostensibly here to address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, will also meet some of Africa’s most divisive politicians in both Kenya and neighbouring Ethiopia. Human rights organisations are lining up to demand that, along with championing security alliances and economic development, he should raise hard questions about democracy and civil liberties.

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta was, at the time of his election in March 2013, facing trial at the international criminal court for his alleged role in the 2007-8 killings. The case has since been withdrawn due to lack of evidence after prosecutors accused the Kenyan government of harassing and intimidating potential witnesses. Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, is still awaiting trial at The Hague.

“The whole thing is a massive disappointment,” said Oduor, 42, who saw dozens of his fellow Luo ethnic group mutilated and killed by mobs in Naivasha. “People suffered, people were killed, people were displaced, but nothing happened and the cause of justice has still not been served.

“Obama shouldn’t meet them because there are all these questions. It will be seen as an endorsement and he’ll be giving them a boost. He shouldn’t shake Ruto’s hand. Maybe he shouldn’t come at all.”

Ndungi Githuku, an artist and activist, said: “Are we being forgotten? Is this the end? By Uhuru meeting Obama, the victims continue to be the losers in this. At the forefront we look flowery and smiling like everything is all right, but behind the scenes dark shadows lurk.”

Moreover, Kenyatta has been accused of presiding over rampant corruption, repressive measures against civil society groups and the media, and police brutality andpersecution of minorities in the name of his own “war on terror”. Ruto, for his part, recently declared that there is “no room for homosexuality” in Kenya, a conservative Christian nation where same-sex acts are illegal.

Asked by the Guardian how he would respond to Obama on gay rights, Kenyatta replied: “That is a non-issue to the people of this country, and it is definitely not on our agenda at all … Poverty, improved health for our people, better education, better roads, better security: these are our key focuses.”

Such words offer cold comfort to George Njeri, a gay man due in court on the day that Obama arrives. Njeri and another man – not his partner – were arrested in Februarywhile merely talking in a restaurant in the town of Diani. He claims police searched his home and found the British TV drama series Queer as Folk, which they deemed obscene, and put pressure on him to out other gay men in the area. When he refused, he alleges, he was subjected to a humiliating anal examination and remanded in custody for five months.

“The cell was very dirty,” the 30-year-old recalled. “The worst food I’ve ever seen, not cooked well. No mattress and one blanket, and you sleep next to the toilets but there is no water to flush. You only go outside for sunlight 20 minutes a day. It’s really tough. I was crying to get out but once I got out I only had a minimum of freedom because I was all over the news. They were saying I’m a porn star.

“My neighbours recognised me and had a meeting and said: ‘We have kids, we cannot stand this.’ They called the landlord and he said: ‘George, you have to move out.’ Now I have to hide myself everywhere I go. It has really messed up my life.”

His voice shaking, Njeri, a hairdresser, continued: “I am so scared. They tell me I could be jailed for 20 to 30 years. I don’t want to lose my life in jail. I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t go for an underage child, I went for somebody who knows his own mind and wanted to be with me as I wanted to be with him. That’s not supposed to be a disaster. Obama is right: we are humans, we are not animals.”

Such cases have fuelled calls by activists for Obama to press the matter in Nairobi. Eric Gitari, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said: “Kenyans are being evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs and forced out of school while trying to get an education because they are gay, lesbian or transgender. For the president to say it’s a non-issue is burying his head in the sand.”

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SOURCE: David Smith 
The Guardian

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