Kenya at a Crossroad: Can the Country Learn From President Obama's Visit And The Trajectory of His Life?

Overlooked in the frenzied excitement over President Obama's visit to his father's birthplace is the inconvenient reality: That long after the sheen from hosting the world's most powerful man is gone, Kenyans will return to the hustle and bustle of their daily lives in a society facing a fork in the road towards its future. It is a reality succinctly described in Duncan Omanga's piece in the Daily Nation. Mr. Omanga writes that Mr. Obama's trip comes at a time when Kenya "...is seized with serious social, economic, and structural challenges" even as some see the visit "....as an opportunity to solve some (of these) protracted.... challenges."

To Mr. Omanga's analysis I would add that if these challenges are not addressed in a timely manner, the country runs the risk of revisiting the PEV chaos of 2007/2008 and a repeat of its underwhelming performance of the 70s and 80s when it had social and economic development fundamentals/indicators that were comparable to those of the Four Asian Tigers (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong & South Korea) only to be left far behind by all four countries decades later.

After President Obama's visit, Kenyans will return to life in a country whose recent past belies the euphoria and jingoism surrounding the visit.

Less than a decade ago, Kenyans overcame ethnic violence of near-genocidal proportion after the disputed elections of 2007. They then elected as their president and deputy president, two individuals - Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto - who were facing crimes-against-humanity charges at The Hague. In a deft stroke of political genius, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta morphed the hitherto "personal challenges" characterization of his charges into a "western attack against Pan-Africanism" in the process rallying leaders of the African Union against the international court (ICC). Mr. Kenyatta thus turned Johnnie Carson's "choices have consequences" warning on its head even as Kenya enjoyed sustained economic growth.

There is little doubt that President Obama's three-day visit to Kenya (to co-host the first Global Entrepreneur Summit (GES) in sub-Saharan Africa) has burnished the country's battered image and that of former crimes-against-humanity suspect Uhuru Kenyatta. Add the massive media exposure (any time POTUS travels abroad) to the country's resilience as illustrated above and it becomes readily apparent why "Africa/Kenya is on the move."

Seemingly (conveniently?) ignored in the triumphalism making the rounds among Kenyatta's supporters is the other side of the fork in the road: A country still steeped in the "rot" that is corruption, cronyism and incompetence at the highest level of its government not to mention ethnic chauvinism and hatred left to run amok. Finally and protestations (of Kenyans On Twitter - KOT) aside, Kenya IS and will continue to be "a hotbed of terror" thanks to the afore-mentioned dysfunction, fissures and incompetence.

From Mr. Moses Kuria's repeated proclivity for blatant and spiteful vitriol to allegations of yet another member of President Kenyatta's inner circle - Devolution Cabinet Secretary Ann Waiguru - being implicated in financial malfeasance, the cohesion and civility of Kenya's socio-political fabric and the quality of its governance has stagnated and now shows signs of regressing back to the lost decades of the eighties and nineties aptly referred to as the "Moi Error." Likewise, from the abuse of power AND misappropriation of public funds by officials such as Kisumu Governor Jack Ranguma to the on-going war against al-Shabaab, the youth bulge and wealth gap, Kenya's list of social, economic and structural challenges is extensive even as the stakes have never been higher.

The recent scandals involving President Kenyatta's acolytes and various elected officials throughout the country are symptomatic of one half of the direst of challenges facing Kenya. The other half is extremist-fueled violence and insecurity as seen in Westgate, Mpeketoni, Lamu and Garissa. And if Kenyans have not realized it, the two halves feed off one another!

The harsh reality is that tribal animus, corruption and insecurity are not going to go away just because President Obama visits his father's birthplace and talks about them. Only Kenyans can confront and address these issues; something they have been loath do.

As hyperbolic as this may sound, once Obama Jr. departs a land whose post-independence leadership frustrated and drove his late father Obama Sr. to drink, Kenyans would have come face-to-face with the full power and might of an office occupied by a man they would have dismissed and maligned if not destroyed given their country's longstanding history of battles for political supremacy between its tribes and political assassinations of those seen as threats to the ruling government: The latter befalling Tom Mboya, Obama Sr.'s benefactor and fellow Luo, allegedly on the orders of an unnamed "big man."

If ever there was an interesting and instructive juxtaposition of circumstances, it would be the visit by Obama Jr, a man who against all odds became the two-term president of the world's remaining superpower, to Kenya, the birthplace of his father and a country whose leadership openly mocked and frustrated both father and son!

Given the afore-mentioned fork in the road, Kenya's history AND the many major challenges facing the country, it will be interesting to see what lessons, if any, the country and its people, especially the youth, draw, not only from the 3-day visit of the part-Kenyan Luo and America's 44th president, but from the trajectory of his life.