President Obama has a problem in Kenya, and it has nothing to do with his fabled birth certificate.
Instead, the president’s first trip to his father’s homeland later this month will confront many of the challenges of his presidency back home, from Islamist terrorism to economic competition from China to his fight for gay rights.
Mr. Obama’s upcoming historic visit is prompting all manner of protests in Kenya, from a peaceful demonstration in Nairobi Wednesday by Kenyan employees of the U.S. Embassy who were injured in the 1998 terrorist bombing, to warnings from public officials and church leaders who don’t want the president to talk about gay rights in the wake of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
And whether or not it’s tied to the presidential visit, the al-Shabab Islamist terrorist group based in neighboring Somalia is waging an escalating campaign of attacks in Kenya, the latest of which killed at least 14 quarry workers on Monday.
In April, shortly after the White House announced the presidential visit, al-Shabab operatives carried out a devastating attack at a university in Kenya, killing 148 people, mostly students. The al Qaeda spinoff group said that attack was revenge for Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia and the government’s mistreatment of Muslims.
“Kenya does have a very serious security problem, and they don’t appear to have any good ideas for figuring it out,” said Joshua Meservey, a specialist on Africa and the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation. “The government’s facing increasing frustration from the population. People are frightened.”
White House officials say the combined tensions have not caused any changes to Mr. Obama’s planned trip on July 24-26 — not yet, anyway. In discussing the preparations Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest sounded a note of caution, saying twice that he had no changes to announce “at this point” about Mr. Obama’s schedule.
“The United States continues to support [Kenya’s] counterterrorism efforts,” he said. “They’re obviously critical to the security of that country and to the security of the continent. But, at this point, I don’t envision the security situation dictating a change in the president’s schedule.”
But what was once seen as an opportunity to celebrate Mr. Obama’s ethnic roots in a triumphant return has become a much more politically fraught stop for the White House.
The official reason for Mr. Obama’s visit is to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which brings together business leaders, policymakers and investors to spur economic growth and new business formation in developing regions. But it will also be the president’s first trip to the homeland of his father, Barack Obama Sr., a member of the Luo ethnic group who was born in Kenya in 1936, when it was still a British colony.
The elder Obama met Stanley Ann Dunham while studying at the University of Hawaii, married her in 1961 and fathered the future president before returning to Kenya in 1964. He died there in a car accident in 1982; the president remembers meeting him only once when he was 10 years old.
Mr. Obama’s trip is becoming a lightning rod for the issue of gay rights in Kenya, where gay sex is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Like many African countries, attitudes in Kenya are overwhelmingly hostile to gays; South Africa is the only nation on the continent that allows same-sex marriage.
Dozens of Kenyans rallied in Nairobi on Monday against homosexuality, and a lawmaker said Mr. Obama should not push a pro-gay agenda during his visit.
“We are telling Mr. Obama, when he comes to Kenya this month — and he tries to bring the abortion agenda, the gay agenda — we shall tell him to shut up and go home,” lawmaker Irungu Kangata told the demonstrators outside parliament.
Some of the demonstrators chanted, “We do not want Obama and Obama, we do not want Michelle and Michelle. We want Obama and Michelle, and we want a child!”
In May Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto told a church congregation that his country had “no room for gays.”
LGBT activists in Kenya are divided on whether Mr. Obama should push publicly for gay rights during his visit, said Brian Dooley, a director at Human Rights First who visited Kenya last week. He said Kenyans will be listening intently to hear whether the president utters the letters “LGBT” in public.
“Some are worried and scared that if he tackles the issue head-on in a speech and uses, as they say, the ‘magic letters’ LGBT out loud it’s going to provoke physical attacks on LGBT people,” Mr. Dooley said. “Some of the activists I heard would prefer that he doesn’t raise it like that.”
But Mr. Dooley also spoke to others in Kenya, such as lawyer Eric Gitari, from the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, who believe Mr. Obama should speak out for gay rights on his visit. Mr. Gitari, he said, believes “the president should use his Kenyan ‘credentials’ to say that ‘I’m of Kenyan heritage, and I’m OK with [gay rights].’”
“The reality is he’s going to be asked about it anyway,” Mr. Dooley said. “I don’t think there’s any escaping it. The danger, as they see it, is that it will overshadow everything else that he talks about on the trip.”
Mr. Earnest said the president won’t feel intimidated against discussing gay rights, although it’s not certain how he will do so.
“We have been clear that when the president travels around the world, he does not hesitate to raise concerns about human rights,” he said.
On his visit, Mr. Obama will also see ample evidence of China’s influence in Kenya overshadowing U.S. interests. Analysts say the Chinese have been far more engaged than the U.S. in economic development in Kenya, building major infrastructure projects such as a railway linking Nairobi and Mombasa and oil pipelines.
China also has made a major push in the mining of copper and rare-earth minerals used in high-tech manufacturing of smartphones and computers.
“China has made a concerted push to build influence and benefit from the rise of this continent,” Mr. Meservey said. “The U.S. absolutely needs to step up its game on the continent. China has very strategically and very consciously moved to lock up a lot of the rare-earth deposits. It’s smart — it’s what they should be doing.”