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 The case has since been withdrawn due to lack of evidence after prosecutors accused the Kenyan government of harassing and intimidating potential witnesses.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 and persecution 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 February while 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.”
He added: “What Obama should do in public forums is use his African card and heritage to say his understanding is that people like this existed long before the blacks were shipped off to slavery, long before the continent was colonised, long before the religions that divide us. Obama should use his understanding as an African to challenge people to expand their knowledge in these matters.”
It all makes for a rougher ride than Obama’s previous forays into sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009 he visited Ghana, where he could comfortably declare that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”, and in 2013 he toured Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, all stable democracies. He returned to South Africa that year for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, where he delivered a stirring eulogy.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy which saw a peaceful transition of power earlier this year, has missed out again. But Kenya is Obama’s ancestral home, his African umbilical cord, the place where children, roads and schools bear his name. His father was among hundreds of Kenyans flown to study at US colleges in an initiative led by senator John F Kennedy. Barack Obama Sr then met and married Ann Dunham and they had a son. Obama Sr returned to Kenya and the couple divorced; he was killed in a car accident in 1982.
There is disappointment in Kogelo, the rural village where Obama’s father was born and buried, and where his stepgrandmother and other family members still live, that the president will not be coming this time. But judging by the air of expectation and costly sprucing up of Nairobi, Kenyans do not share the feeling among many in Africa that Obama’s tenure has been a letdown for the continent.
Mugo Kibati, former director-general of the Kenya Vision 2030 development programme, said: “He has shown Americans hey, I’m a president like anyone else. It’s good for Africa, subliminally, and more powerful than anything he could have done. By being who he is and being a good president it speaks volumes and has taken Africa leaps forward in the global psyche.
“If Obama had spent one more degree of effort on Africa than his predecessor, the ‘birthers’ [who allege he was born in Kenya] would have had a field day. If John F Kennedy had spent all his time in Ireland, I don’t think Americans would have tolerated it.”
The Kenya that awaits Obama has changed profoundly since his last visit as a senator in 2006, and in some ways holds up a mirror to the US itself. Its politics are fiercely competitive and dysfunctionally partisan; its economy is vibrant, notably its tech sector (some restaurants now place a code on your table instead of a bill, inviting payment via mobile phone); its experience of Islamist extremism has offered a pretext for a security clampdown criticised as heavy-handed and counterproductive.
The country’s twin narratives of growth and terror are hurtling along in parallel and nowhere is the tension more evident than the Westgate shopping centre, the defining symbol of Kenya’s expanding middle class until gunmen from the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab killed 67 people there in 2013. It reopened last weekend with rifle-toting paramilitary guards, bomb detectors, luggage x-rays, scanners to check underneath cars, bollards to prevent car bombs and bullet-proof guard towers in a security operation run by an Israeli company.
Once such airport-style inconveniences are cleared, shoppers meet the promise of prosperity: Apple iPads and laptops and curving Samsung televisions, the Diamond Watch Company, a tapas bar and a salon, barbershop and spa. Store manager Sangu Shah, 51, who had a gun put to her head and watched her husband killed in the massacre, said: “It’s a good thing that Obama is coming to Kenya. We need to know Kenya is still safe. I’d definitely like to see the US help with security.”
But Jimmy Dholani, 22, international relationships manager at Lavi’s International, an Indian clothing boutique where dozens of people took refuge during the attack, said: “He’s not God coming from heaven and shouldn’t be treated like one. He’s a common man. If the president of Kenya went to America, I don’t think all this would happen.”
Having become the first sitting US president to visit Kenya, on Sunday Obama will achieve the same distinction in Ethiopia, which receives about $800m (£512m) a year in US military assistance and is seen as a bulwark against the spread of Islamist militancy in Africa. It is also widely regarded as an authoritarian regime that locks up more journalists than almost any other country in Africa. Critics question why Obama would allow it to bask in the glow of the world’s most powerful democrat.
Bekele Nega, general secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, said: “The government are using Obama’s visit as an endorsement of all their work, all their corrupt leadership and failure to respect human rights. They are propagating the idea that the Americans are coming to strengthen us because we are doing a good job in development. We don’t understand what the Americans are doing. President Obama could be on the wrong side of history.”
Muthoni Wanyeki, regional director of Amnesty International, said: “It isn’t an official Amnesty position but I think it is highly unfortunate that he has chosen to come to Kenya and Ethiopia. It sends a dangerous signal to both leaderships.”
The evidence against Kenyatta was never heard by the ICC before the charges were dropped, she noted. “It’s not like he was cleared in a court process. The case was undermined diplomatically, legally and extralegally as well. Now Obama’s visit is being played out as, ‘We’re back, we’re a legitimate international player with no case to answer’.”
Kenya’s relations with the west have wobbled in recent years but both sides seem willing to bury the hatchet for the sake of trade and security. Wanyeki added: “The Kenyan human rights community is disappointed that Obama’s decided to come. It sends a worrying signal that the belligerence and bullying of the international community – ‘If you don’t like us, we’ll look east,’ – is working.
“I have never felt Kenya to be as unstable as it is. The tensions in the country are evident. It’s not old school repression, it’s something new, something slicker.
“Ethiopia is old school. Obama’s visit there is a terrible idea. It’s a complete endorsement of an election [two months ago] in which all the rights of the opposition, journalists and student protesters were denied.”
However, Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan activist and photojournalist whose office wall has pictures of Obama, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, believes the US president is resurgent following the legalisation of gay marriage, survival of his healthcare plan and his momentous speech on race in Charleston. The Obama who inspired him and millions of others in 2008 is back, he hopes, just in time to look Africa’s big men in the eye.
“George W Bush did more for Africa – it’s a fact – but now Obama has a chance to redeem himself,” he said. “If you look at what he’s done in the last few months, he’s redeemed himself to the black community in the United States and he’s redeemed himself to black Africans. Have you seen the movie Django Unchained? This is Obama Unchained.”