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Matt Carotenuto: “How Obama’s African Origin Weighed On His Politics”

In April 2016, the British are in the midst of a referendum on whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. President Barack Obama arrives in London on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II, and also to support Prime Minister David Cameron who pleads for the maintenance of Britain in the EU. When the Air Force One lands on British soil appears in the newspaper The Sun an article signed by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson – has since become foreign minister. The fervent defender of the “Brexit” explains his arguments. In passing, it asserts a rather aggressive charge against Barack Obama. Reliving a bust affair of Churchill sacked from the White House, he evokes “the ancestral aversion of the British Empire of the Kenyan president”. All of a sudden, the “special relationship” between the two nations since the end of the Second World War seems remote. President Obama becomes this revanchard of the former British colonialist. Caught up by its Kenyan origin. As in the United States, where he was the victim during his first term of a fierce campaign on his illegitimacy to govern, because supposed non-American. How has Barack Obama’s African heritage (he was born in Hawaii from a Kenyan father and an American mother) been a handicap during his two terms as president? The American historian Matt Carotenuto * argues that the political effects of the campaigns on his Kenyan origin and his alleged inability to govern are underestimated. He explains, and also refers to the African-American president’s ties with his father’s country, Kenya.

Africa Point: What do you remember about Barack Obama’s legacy?

Matt Carotenuto: Overall, I think that the African policy of Obama fits more in continuity than change. Perhaps one of the most important changes is the emphasis on trade diplomacy with the Power Africa Initiative, which is supposed to double access to electricity on the continent and renew the Growth and Opportunity Act In Africa (AGOA) set up by the Clinton administration. Moving away from a neo-colonial model, and the rhetoric that the United States is going to save Africa from itself, the Obama administration’s programs have rather stuck to the idea of ” ‘Africa’. But while the Obama administration encourages public-private partnerships and youth-centered development, at the same time there is a growing militarization in Africa. From the US-backed Libyan coup to the drones in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, Obama is following in the footsteps of the Bush administration after September 11, African security mainly through the lens of the “World War Against Terrorism”.

And in Kenya?

He became a star in Kenya long before he became a star in the United States when he was elected to the Senate in 2004. It was incredible to see what people expected of a young Senator from Illinois. With their own history of favoritism and marginalization, West Kenyans (mostly Luo, like Barack Obama’s paternal family) were expecting their new patron to provide wealth and development projects The region of Lake Victoria, that it favors its Kenyan and Luo heritage. Obama himself never encouraged this idea and spoke strongly of the need to abandon the politics of regionalism and ethnicity during an official visit in 2006.

Then, on his first visit to Kenya as US President in 2015, I think he played well in showing that he was connected to the whole country, and not just, as many Kenyans perceived, With what connected him to his paternal inheritance Luo. The visit to President Kenyatta, of Kikuyu origin, confirmed that he was not intrinsically linked to the political leadership Luo represented by opponent Raila Odinga.

On the other hand, I believe that on his way to Kenya he also contributed symbolically to legitimizing the regime of Uhuru Kenyatta and Willam Ruto, the country’s leader since the 2013 elections, Two prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). And when you look at Obama’s speeches, he is generally fairly critical about corruption, nepotism, that kind of old system that still dominates the Kenyan political system, but it has also not specifically named These leaders.


Why did he wait until 2015, and his third and final African tour, to go to his father’s country?

He had promised to go to Kenya at the beginning of his presidency. However, during the first mandate, from 2008 to 2012, the African policy of the Obama administration was hampered by the global financial crisis but also by the controversies over its Kenyan origin. In a crude way, a fringe of opponents of the right wing of the political chessboard has made its African heritage something non-American.Through best-sellers and a TV documentary, experts have developed racist readings of Kenyan history, linking Obama to a range of events ranging from Kenya’s anti-colonial rebellion to post-election violence in 2008. They thus made Kenya a commodity, an argument for political protest, which relegated Barack Obama’s visit to his ancestral land at a time when his re-election was no longer at stake.

How was Obama’s African heritage a handicap during his first term?

His first term was truly dominated by the economic situation in the United States and the controversy over his African heritage. This is a point where academics do not give enough credit. When you have people like Donald Trump, who make his Kenyan legacy a political disability and constantly come back on insane things like his birth certificate, then, necessarily, a minority of the American public ends up internalising this narrative. Barack Obama did not fail to joke about it (the White House has finally unveiled the Obama birth certificate in April 2011, ed), but a recent survey published in August 2016 indicated that approximately 40% of Republicans believe yet that President Obama was not born in the USA ! Thus, the obstacles created by its African origin in the United States may not have changed its rhetoric on the African continent, but have had a strong impact on its political engagement in Africa.

What will mark his presidency on the African continent?

I think it will be the symbolism of his commitment and his ability to understand. It is based on an African experience, as no other president can do. He is not only the first African-American president, but he is the first president to have spent time on the African continent before his election. I think that counts as much as his Kenyan heritage. He tried to understand the African realities from a local point of view. I do not think that his actions or governmental actions reflect that, but when you look at his interactions with Africans, and how he addresses the young African leaders, you see this empathy, an understanding of local issues. With regard to its programs, I wonder what the implications will be for Power Africa or the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). But as for the AGOA launched under Clinton or the Bush program to fight the AIDS virus, it will be up to Obama’s successor to complete his African heritage.

Do you think that Africa interests him?

Yes I think so. And I’m curious to see what he’s going to do after his term. He is a young president, and if we take the example of Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, they both set up very solid foundations after their presidencies, which had global repercussions. Some of the statements made by Barack Obama in Kenya suggest that he could engage on African issues more directly after his departure from the White House.To say to the Kenyans in 2015, “next time I come back, I will not wear a suit” may suggest that he would like to engage in Kenya at perhaps a more personal level. It will be interesting to see if he develops a philanthropy similar to those of former Democratic presidents such as Carter and Clinton. Personally I do not imagine retiring from public life and I suspect that we will talk about the legacy of Obama in Kenya and more widely in Africa in the years to come.

* Matt Carotenuto is Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University in New York State. He is the author, along with Katherine Luongo, of “Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging in Kenya”. He has also published articles on the African heritage of Barack Obama in Open Democracy and Politico .



Written by How Africa

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