The pro’s and con’s of the Obama visit to Africa


(Posted 27th June 2013)

When US President Barrack Obama touches down at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam in a few days, there will be a fair amount of BO-OOO’s from neighbouring Kenya, the land his late father came from and the land he ostensibly ditched following the outcome of the March general and presidential elections, which was won by a team his administration worked hard to keep out of office.

Leading CEO’s from Nairobi have shown solidarity with their elected President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, and the majority in both houses held by their coalition, and turned down invitations to join a dinner hosted by Obama in Dar es Salaam, and did so in a very public way which went viral on East Africa’s social media.

Tanzanians of course still are enthusiastic about being chosen as THE country Obama selected to visit in Eastern Africa, but it is expected that enthusiasm will quickly wane, when the full force of security arrangements comes into force in the final run in to his touch down in Dar, as airspace will be closed, roads be blocked off and a ‘secure cordon’ be established for several kilometres around the Hyatt Hotel Dar es Salaam, where he will be staying.

Some of us in East Africa remember past US presidential visits, to Uganda for instance, where both Bush and Clinton visited, and where enthusiasm, at least for the ordinary wananchi and business community, quickly gave way to that unique ‘royally pissed off’ feeling when the shutdowns started to take effect.

For our politicians in the region too, the euphoria of hosting a US president, often made way to often incredulity, when, apart from the host president – and there are reports some of those were not spared either – they were subjected to the full scrutiny of the US Secret Service, their communications down and their own security details disarmed and shoved aside.

An interesting article appeared in the Standard, published in Nairobi, which is worth sharing, to not just recall such past memories but to forewarn our fellow East Africans in Tanzania of what is about to descend on them like the proverbial ton of bricks.

What Kenyans will ‘miss’ as President Obama tours other nations in Africa

Updated Wednesday, June 26th 2013 at 22:33 GMT +3


Kenya:In September 2000, as then US President Bill Clinton visited Arusha, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa stared in disbelief as US Secret Service agents opened doors of his limousine to let in a sniffer dog hunting for “hidden bombs and grenades”.

Hours later, retired President Daniel Moi, who had flown to Arusha to meet Clinton, could not communicate with Moi International Airport Mombasa after the Secret Service agents jammed all local communications in the town. Moi was scheduled to be in Mombasa for a three-day visit. When USPresident Barack Obama arrives in Dakar, Senegal today, the country’s systems will be turned upside down. His visit will cost US taxpayers an estimated $100m, enough to build three Thika superhighways.

Despite goodies a US President brings — investors and announcing grants to local projects — his visit can be a nightmare. It can negatively affect local businesses.

Just ask the people of Dakar, Senegal. When President Bill Clinton visited the city in 1998, most small business in downtown Dakar were closed and residents were “bunkerised” — or forced to stay indoors.

With Obama’s impending visit, Dakar has already been turned into a slow city and beggars have been cleared from the streets.

Trapped in cars

If Obama had factored Kenya in his itinerary, it seems conceivable that all communication systems in the country would probably have been shut down as US intelligence apparatus take control of communications. Our airspace would possibly be shut or interrupted, and roads would be cordoned off.

Thousands of Nairobi residents would be trapped in their offices, cars and homes. If you think traffic jams are bad in Nairobi, think of what a visiting US President would do.

Dakar is still smarting from an embarrassing scenario in 1998 following Clinton’s visit.

Already residents in downtown Dakar are reporting lost business and economists are projecting losses to the country’s economy to the tune of millions of dollars yet Obama has not arrived.

This is what Kenyans will not be subjected to as Obama bypasses the country in his African trip that takes him to Senegal, South Africa and the neighbouring Tanzania.

Kenya got a taste of this disruption on a minor scale when President Clinton visited Arusha for the regional summit. Former President Moi was expected back in Mombasa the same evening at around 8pm.

But five hours later, the presidential jet had not touched down in Mombasa and the ensuing anxiety caused shivers among the country state security apparatus.

The problem was that they were unable to reach presidential security en tourage in Arusha because the US had jammed all communication.

A security officer, who was part of the security team waiting for retired President Moi in Mombasa, says they endured hours of anxiety as the whereabouts of the President remained unclear. He says: “We were in the dark because the President had delayed to arrive and nobody was telling us from the other side what was happening. We had no idea they were experiencing communication problems,” he says.

Instead of the scheduled 8pm arrival time, the president’s jet arrived in Mombasa some minutes past 1am. There has been hue and cry about what Obama’s snub on Kenya portends, but every US President’s visit comes with excess baggage, which include security nightmare — even though such visits are deemed to come with some goodies — and could include investment and trade opportunities and foreign policy influences. Quoting a US government internal planning document for the visit, The Washington Post reports that US Secret Service agents would be posted in secure facilities. An aircraft carrier with a fully equipped medical trauma centre will be part of the security arrangements. If Obama were visiting Kenya, this carrier would probably be stationed off Mombasa port. According to the newspaper, support vehicles, which include 14 limousines, will be airlifted in by US cargo planes.

US military helicopters were reportedly spotted on Tuesday flying over Pretoria and Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, with national police spokesman Sally de Beer confirming the fly over as an exercise in conjunction with the US government to ensure everything ran smoothly when Obama arrived. Three Sea Knight helicopters and two Black Hawks were also spotted flying over Illovo and Sandton. According to an impeccable Kenyan intelligence source, this might not account for all the security measures in President Obama’s African itinerary. “They only reveal what they want you to know,” says the source, who wishes not to be named. “Otherwise the equipment and intelligence on the menu would be enough to shut down half of the continent,” adds the source, who has been at the helm of security during US officials’ visit to Kenya.

In Africa, however, such elaborate US security arrangements for the visit of their Heads of State have often dazzled — if not completely embarrassed the continent.

Back to Arusha summit, after the Secret Service cleared Clinton’s table of mineral water and soda, they quickly replaced them with a can of coca cola flown directly from America. President Clinton drank straight from the can — and it was the only drink he took inside the meeting hall.

He turned down local food. A visit by the US President to any African country is a tantalising experience because it could mean a better relationship with the most powerful nation on earth—and even more aid—but it comes with its own attendant costs. US officials say Sub-Saharan Africa is a centre of global growth and a place where US business investment and trade could help boost Africa’s economic expansion. President Obama arrives on the continent along with key economic officials and will meet American and African business executives. Economists say many of the world’s fastest-growing economies are inAfrica, and the potential for future growth – particularly outside the resource sectors – is greater than it has been before.

So when the echo of the initial hurray’s has faded away and the flags, handed out in generous amounts been put back into drawers, no doubt the net results of the Obama visit will be closely studied, more so as he arrives in Africa as a distant second to Chinese president Xi Jinping, whose predecessor also toured Africa as did the former Chinese Prime Minister. Obama’s visit is therefore seen as more of damage control than a true ‘original’ in the light of his administration’s foreign policy rankings for Africa, which has been overshadowed by a renewed rivalry with Russia and of course the race to the pinnacle which is underway with China, politically, economically and militarily. Give or take a few years, or a decade or two, there is little doubt who will come out on top, not in Africa anyway where China has over the past two decades rolled out a carefully crafted policy of bilateral and multilateral aid projects, major infrastructure development support and other measures, in return gaining access to the continent’s massive resources at the expense of the West and in particular the US. Obama will no doubt try to stem the tide, for a while at least but hapless meddling in foreign countries politics, like in Kenya prior to the elections, has left a stale taste in the mouths of the locals.

The cost of his trip to Africa, some say anywhere between 60 and 100 million US Dollars, is under severe criticism back home in the US, where the focus of the political mainstream is on Russia, China and Europe and to fix the aftermath of the revelations of massive spying on the allies in the EU and the adversaries beyond, which came to light in recent weeks. ‘He should have just written a cheque for that amount and sent to Africa’ said a politically astute source in Kampala yesterday when discussing the issue before adding ‘… and our friends in Tanzania will be able to judge for themselves, how the Obama visit ranks in comparison to Xi’s visit not so long ago. The will wonder why Obama needs an army of security and shuts down Tanzania and literally takes over when Xi’s visit was the exact opposite. He too had security, of course, but far less obtrusive and with no hint of taking over the host country like the Americans are now preparing to do’.

Another regular source from Nairobi expressed his own relief as he wrote: ‘They would have shut down our airspace and crippled airtraffic. Domestic flights would have been cancelled and the worst, Africa’s busiest airport, Wilson, would have been shut down too because it is within sight of JKIA. Our tourists, and remember we are still trying to come out of our downturn, would have been left grounded and no matter what publicity Obama’s visit could have brought, would that have been a price worth paying? Who would compensate those tourists for their messed up itineraries? It would be us, our tour operators and airlines, not the Americans. I have mixed feelings about missing out on this visit. Obama obviously has a hidden agenda here and we know why that is so, it is the outcome of the elections which saw his favourite lose big time. His visit could have boosted Kenya’s image abroad but for not coming we also were spared all those downsides. And if the visit boosts Tanzania’s tourism, the entire region will benefit, so we get the benefit without the troubles’.

The cost for local businesses, which had hoped for a windfall from the visit, may be major, and while Tanzania’s tourism sector hopes to cash in later on the ‘fame’ the visit may bring in the American market, they will have a bunch of very unhappy tourists to deal with who’s itineraries will be messed about while in Tanzania because of the security cordons and precautions. Yes, the hotels in Dar will be full, booked by the press corps and US officials, but when those are gone, will the fully booked signs remain lit or be substituted by the ‘vacancies’ signs hang out again? Time will tell, but for sure, those Kenyans still upset about Obama giving them the cold shoulder, they should think again, of what they have been spared. Still wondering, well read Dan Okoth’s article a second time!

3 Responses

  1. If Kenya will miss all these inconveniences then what the hell are our leaders complaining about as if they are snubbed wives in a polygamous marriage. Is it a case of sour grapes.

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