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Long Goodbye – How Obama Glossed Over Africa’s Troubles – The Daily Beast

Long Goodbye

LONG GOODBYE   07.27.15  2:20 PM ET

How Obama Glossed Over Africa’s Troubles


To keep his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia upbeat, Obama declined to address some of the really big problems in both countries.

NAIROBI — In what may give the term “birther” new meaning, it’s rumored that in Kogelo, President Barack Hussein Obama’s father’s hometown on the shore of Lake Victoria, boy babies born over the weekend were named “Air Force One” and “POTUS.”

All part of the long kwaheri, Swahili for “good-bye,” as Obama leaves Africa.

In Kenya, when he walked onstage at the Kasarani stadium to deliver his final speech, the crowd of 5,000 cheered the president as if he were a rock star. As the helicopter known as Marine One delivered the president to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for his departure to Ethiopia, photos appeared on Facebook of grown Kenyan men in tears.

While in Nairobi, the President got and gave a lot of love—some of it of the tough variety delivered to his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama pressed the Kenyan leader on such sensitive issues as gay rights, which Kenyatta called a “non-issue,” and corruption, about which he made no comment.

The top item on their agenda was Kenya’s fight against Al Shabaab, the Somali-bred Islamist group that has, in recent years, come of age with attacks inside Kenya. After warming up with the kidnapping and murder of tourists, al-Shabaab advanced to devastating acts of violence at malls and universities. Since Kenya invaded Somalia, in 2011, the Somali faction’s retaliation against soft targets on Kenyan soil has left more than 600 dead. And that figure doesn’t include those hundreds who perished when al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998.

Saturday, in a joint press conference held at the statehouse here, Obama announced that the United States is providing Kenyan security forces additional funding and assistance to deal with terrorism and to make sure that the efforts made to root out terrorist threats do not create more problems than they solve.

The question left unspoken, however, is one that’s been weighing heavily on the minds of analysts, policy makers, and rights groups: What to do with Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in Kenya’s northeast province, near the Somali border, which allegedly is used as a prime staging ground for al-Shabaab’s attacks.

Dadaab refugee camp, now in operation 23 years, has grown from a tented village to become a small city that houses over 300,000 stateless people.
Kenya’s refugee problems are not new, dating from the ’90s when Somalis fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Muhammad Siad-Barre put down roots in an area of Nairobi now called Eastleigh. It is home to over 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers, yet over time has become an important East African trade hub for the Somali diaspora in Nairobi.

Dadaab, now in operation 23 years, has grown from a tented village to become a small city that houses over 300,000 stateless people. According to Human Rights Watch, Kenyan security forces deployed to Dadaab since the 2011 invasion of Somalia have committed abuses and human-rights violations against refugees.

Shortly after April’s al-Shabaab assault on Garissa University, which left at least 147 dead, Médecins Sans Frontières took the precautionary measure of evacuating 42 members of its staff from Dadaab. The withdrawal had an immediate impact on MSF’s ability to provide medical care to the camp’s mainly Somali residents.

Kenya has since demanded that the UN move the camp’s population back to Somalia, and given a three-month deadline to do it. Human-rights groups pointed out that the move is, under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, illegal.

Kenya’s Christians and Muslims have historically coexisted peacefully. Since counter-terror efforts were ramped up under George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, Muslim communities along the country’s Swahili coast see themselves as having been marginalized and made victims of state-sponsored terror.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kenya and mediated talks between President Kenyatta and the UN on the issue of Dadaab. Afterwards, Kerry said that the refugee camp would remain open, pledging $45 million to the UN High Commission for Refugees and continued efforts for voluntary repatriation.
Obama’s final speech at Kasarani stadium amounted to his welcoming acceptance of the country’s embrace, as a son of Kenya. It was probably not lost on the American president, however, that last year police had rounded up thousands of Muslims—mainly women and children—and detained them for three weeks on a soccer pitch a few hundred meters from the stadium where Obama was speaking. The mass detention came in reaction to a series of explosions in Eastleigh that killed six and injured more than 20 people.

Rights groups reported that police extorted money from men in Eastleigh and sexually harassed female detainees. Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said in a press conference in Nairobi at the time that all undocumented Somali refugees in Eastleigh would be deported back to Somalia.

Over the weekend of Obama’s visit, the two countries’ leaders spoke of “deepening of ties” on the matter of counter-terror.

Kenyatta declared that the war on terror is an “existential fight” of a kind Kenya has not previously experienced. The Kenyan president’s point was that Nairobi must have partners like Washington.

In the absence of an efficient judicial system, a major question in Kenya remains whether security forces will continue to use the hard-line, abusive approach in dealing with terror threats. Since 9/11, the U.S. has applied at least $200 million in aid money, disbursed through various agencies, to East Africa’s counter-terror efforts. During his visit in May, Secretary Kerry committed an additional $100 million to Kenya, an increase from $38 million the previous year.

Over the weekend Obama and Kenyatta came up with a plan that will further increase financial aid for the military, police, and judiciary under the Peacekeeping Operations program through the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism. It’s still unclear the amount of funding that Obama has promised to Kenya and what strategies will be promoted.

Following the big roundup that led to lengthy detention at Kasarani, The Daily Beast established contact in Eastleigh with Lul Isack, chair of Umma, a community organization that had created a safe house for dozens of female detainees who reported being sexually assaulted and abused by police. In Somali societies women who’ve been raped are typically unable to find a husband, and married women are abandoned. Umma provided victims psychological counseling and surgical care.

sked now whether she is worried about how the Kenyan government plans to use monies donated by the United States to Kenya for counter-terror operations, Lul said she was pleased that Obama had announced that the U.S. pledges $1 billion to support women and youth entrepreneurs worldwide and increase technical and financial support for young women entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. “I believe this is where we as a civil society organization come in, and we women now have a platform and our voices will be heard,” she says. “Kenya has challenges, but Obama is president of the most powerful country in the world and we believe the Kenya government will listen to him.”

Kenyan police continue to extort money from Somali businesspeople, says Lul, but the women she cared for managed to return to Somalia via voluntary repatriation—towns and cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, and Hargeisa in Somaliland—and have succeeded in opening businesses, such as beauty salons.

After departing Kenya, Obama made his first trip ever to Ethiopia. There, he met with officials of the government, the African Union (AU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to discuss trade, the political crisis in South Sudan and the ongoing battle against Al-Shabaab.

The new mantra in Kenya, as elsewhere, is “trade, not aid.” Obama’s visit to East Africa is said to demonstrate the U.S. government’s firm commitment to the battle against terrorism in the region, and to help Ethiopia develop from an aid-recipient nation to a partner in a mutually beneficial trade relationship.

The president drew fiery criticism over the astronomical costs of his traveling to a conflict zone, but throughout his African journey he has appeared to be his usual cool, unflappable self, and already he is talking about returning to Kenya as a private citizen, when he can have more freedom to connect with his extended family and have hands-on engagement with poor communities.

“I can guarantee you I will be back,” the president said. “And the next time I am back, I may not be wearing a suit.” He won’t be on Air Force One, either.



How safe is Kenya’s coast for tourists?

Read my award-winning Newsweek story about the tourist kidnappings.


Paradise revised. Difficult to imagine that anything bad can happen in a place this beautiful. Manda island, 2011

Glassy waters on approach to Marie Dedieu’s grass hut. Like fruit on an outdoor stand almost anyone living the Robinson Crusoe dream was ripe for the plucking. (margot kiser, 2011)

Aerial photo of shoreline and acacia trees where pirates stashed Dedieu for the night. Near Ras Kamboni, Somalia.



Near Kiwayu

Feels safe enough to me. The calm and relaxed atmosphere I remember when I first visited Lamu in the early ’90s has replaced the palpable tension – the terror – and eerie quiet that followed the kidnaps. Safe or not – who really knows – Lamu has reverted to that hidden gem that every visitor feels they’re the first to discover. Most importantly, I no longer look at every fishing skiff as if it might be packed with pirates predisposed to snatch the first mzungu (European) they see.

Is this a false sense of security?

Every evening at 6pm administration policemen armed with AKs patrol Shela and Manda beaches. I don’t see the rumored armed patrol boats in the Shela channel where an armed gang plucked Marie Dedieu. BBC recently did a segment “testing” security in Lamu. The presenter hopped on a police boat with heavily armed men and headed toward the Shela channel. But patrol boats and surveillance aircraft seem only materialize when journalists are lurking.

Admin police armed with AKs patrol Shela’s beach — reassuring or daunting sight?

A nearby US military base reportedly sends drones to surveille southern Somalia. In June, the British High Commission donated high-tech, high-speed Zodiac-like boat to local administration police to patrol waters around the Lamu Archipelago.  Nice gesture but whether it’s used to that end or to moonlight as a taxi to ferry ill relatives of police to the mainland is anyone’s guess.

As early as July, 2011, AMISOM had made gains in expelling Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked insurgency group, from Mogadishu. After losing revenue from Mogadishu port, cash-strapped rebels could no longer afford to sniff piously at the avarice of pirates. They began demanding protection money from pirates so they could gas up boats or pass through their clan territory. For the first time, insurgents and pirates were interdependent. No more criminal or ideological apartheid.

Radio active mangoes

The successes of AMISOM and increased security on vessels forced criminals to think of other ways of making money. Ironically, these conditions created the perfect storm for land-based kidnappings of tourists and aid workers.

Crooks adapt and commit crimes in ways that defy the imagination. Law enforcement is always playing catch up.

Instead of beefing up security around Lamu, Kenya‘s reaction was to launch a military invasion into Somalia. This week marks the one year anniversary of Kenya Defense Forces first incursion into the failed state. Cynics and conspiracy theorists reckon Kenya and the US have wanted to do this for some time. The kidnappings offered the perfect opportunity. Some believe various governments planned the kidnappings, the murders. The victims – like most wars – were collateral damage in a long overdue war.

Drifting toward Somalia.

Since the invasion the US-backed Kenya Defense Forces (recently “re-hatted” under auspices of AMISOM) futher secured most of Mogadishu. AMISOM recently announced that it has flushed out Shabab from Kismayu, the strategic port town about 500 kms south of Mogadishu, thus cutting off one of the insurgent group’s main source of revenue — charcoal.

Has the invasion that began last October helped secure northern Kenya from its spillover of pirates and insurgents? There are too few tourists in Lamu now to test the theory, but military spokesmen and analysts say Al Shabab has dispersed deeper into the bush of Somalia. Others say they’re fleeing either south to lawless Tanzania and north to Yemen. As of this writing, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded a 54% drop in maritime piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Adan in the last year. It’s been reported that Somali pirates are now raiding scallop fishermen off the coast of France.

Pirates, terrorists and thugs probably have better things to do than hang around their last crime scene. Yet no one but a politician or local hoteliers would say it’s 100% safe to return to Kenya’s coast. Reminds me of the scene in ‘Jaws’ when the mayor of Martha’s Vineyard urges tourists to go back in the water, even after what could only be a great white killed two swimmers. The obvious motive was to mitigate loss of tourist revenue.

Paradise restored? View of Shela from Manda during spring tide

You would think any civic-minded stake-holder – such as the relatively wealthy hoteliers in the area – would make a lot of noise and hold local government officials accountable for the glaring lack of security. I asked one hotelier why they didn’t press officials on this matter. Did it have anything to do with the fact that the government is so rife with corruption it would be a task in futility even to try? She looked down while planting her feet in the sand and sighed. Those who dog officials might have hell to pay in the form of revoked operating licenses. Yet even for hotels to pool resources to hire private militia is not cost effective. It is understandable if unacceptable that these hoteliers lash out at journalists who try to shine a light on darkness.

Newsflash to nasty hoteliers — no one’s going to come to Lamu because they feel sorry for your loss of revenue and having to lay off your staff. It’s up to you to keep harassing officials en mass.

Lamu has been and will forever be a destination for the intrepid traveler. By ‘intrepid’ I mean you need your wits about you, not for kidnappers but petty thieves and fish mongers likely to rip you off.

After 9/11, 2001 attack on Twin Towers in NYC, some friends vowed never to board a commercial airliner again. I opted to travel more.  I figured, what were the odds of something like that ever happening again? I became more of a fatalist than I already was after living in Africa by then for many years. If you don’t, you run the risk of letting traumatic events out of your control run the rest of your life.

Counter-terror and anti-piracy officials I have spoken to say that post-election Somalia will mean an influx of aid workers. Fresh blood like this will be most vulnerable to kidnaps. If you are kidnapped be sure it’s by land-based pirates and not Shabab; it’s illegal for most governments to negotiate ransoms with designated terrorist groups.

Gabriella’s Fort.

The passage of time and a short memory for bad things that happen in beautiful places will determine whether various governments around the world decide to ease travel restrictions to Kenya. Until then they are reluctant to do so should another incident occur.

Kenya and Lamu are safe with minimal security, though I would not recommend staying in a grass hut near the beach that doesn’t have windows and doors that can lock.  Private villas and hotels in Lamu or Shela town should be fine.

Maasai askari (guard)

You have to be extremely unlucky to get kidnapped. You’re as likely to get struck by lightning in Montana or hit by a taxi in Manhattan than kidnapped by pirates in paradise.

Stopover mosque, Shela.