DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When President Obama exits the airport in Nairobi, Kenya today, he will see a prominent billboard. It reads, welcome home, Mr. President. This is the country where Obama's father was born, and the president's Kenyan roots have been a source of pride. What you might not know is that Obama's ties to Kenya have also inflamed the ethnic politics of the country. Here's NPR's Gregory Warner.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Barack Obama won the election in 2008, his victory was declared a national holiday in Kenya. Caleb Atemi was leading a karate conference on the Kenyan coast. He's a media analyst and a martial artist. So he was trying to abstain from alcohol.
CALEB ATEMI: (Laughter) I took a few glasses of wine.
WARNER: But when Obama won his re-election in 2012, Kenyan audiences no longer saw him as son of a nation, but the son of a particular ethnic group - the Luo.
ATEMI: Actually, when Obama was re-elected, there are a section of Kenyans who celebrated, others who cursed and moaned. They see Obama as a Luo.
WARNER: And that perception played into a leadership battle between the nation's two dominant tribes. 2012 was the run-up to an election year in Kenya. On one side, Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo like Obama's father, on the other, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president and an ethnic Kikuyu. The polls were neck and neck. But one month before the election - February 2013 - Obama's then Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said this in a telepress conference.
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JOHNNIE CARSON: We, as the United States, do not have a candidate nor a choice in this election process. But as I just said, choices have consequences.
WARNER: Choices have consequences referred to charges against the candidate Kenyatta in the International Criminal Court that he'd orchestrated violence in the last election. But Obuya Bagaka, a professor at the Kenya School of Government, says the phrase was a pivot in U.S.-Kenyan relations. Kenyatta's campaign went on the offensive and spun it as an attempt by the USA to muddle in African politics.
OBUYA BAGAKA: The notion that Obama himself was favoring a particular candidate.
WARNER: Now, America did seem to many observers to be favoring one candidate - favoring the candidate who was not accused of war crimes. But Obama's Kenyan roots were his weak spot. His choice - if that's what it was - was cast as ethnic favoritism, and there was a backlash.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uhuru Kenyatta is Kenya's new president thanks to 50.07 percent of the vote.
WARNER: The new president, Kenyatta, courted China with his Turning East policy. President Obama flew by Kenya on his Africa trip. Relations were chilly until...
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WARNER: ...When Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi was attacked by Islamist group al-Shabab. President Obama called President Kenyatta to offer support. U.S. funding to Kenya's military would skyrocket. Kemoli Sagala is a political scientist.
KEMOLI SAGALA: The United States needs Kenya more than Kenya needs the United States when it comes to the war on terror.
WARNER: And that military and trade relationship is stronger today. But maybe we could've started this timeline even earlier, before Obama's election, with the bad blood between Obama's father and Kenyatta's father, the first Kenyan president - or with that scholarship that Barack Senior took in 1959 to study economics in the United States, leaving his son in Hawaii.
SAGALA: And the son is the president of the United States, the first American president in office to visit Kenya. I think, to me, that is the circle is now being completed.
GREENE: Homecomings are complicated. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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