East Africa faces a high stakes security test as Obama and Papal visits draw closer

obama and pope

US President Barack Obama (L) and Pope Francis (R) at the Vatican last year/Photo/abc.go.com


Security in the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is going to have the toughest test to its effectiveness this year as the region prepares to host the two most prominent personalities in the world.

US President Barack Obama Jr, the first black man to lead the world’s biggest superpower is set to visit his country of ancestry in July, while the head of the 1 billion-plus Catholic Church, Pope Francis 1, will reportedly be visiting Uganda at a date yet to be confirmed.

Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr, was born in western Kenya. He was Luo, born at a place called K’Ogelo, where several of his relatives including the President’s favourite grandmother Sarah Onyango Obama still lives.

Since the US President’s itinerary is a closely-guarded secret it is not possible to know whether he will get to meet the grandmother or any of his relatives during the short visit, expected to last 8-hours, at maximum.


BACK TO THE ROOTS: President Obama plans to visit his ancestral nation, Kenya this july


But according to US Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec, the official position is that President Obama will attend the World Entrepreneurship Summit and also hold a meeting with his counterpart, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Meanwhile, should the Pope visit Uganda, as he has already hinted, the East African country will become the first country in the world to host three reigning Popes at different times. Cameroon, Angola and Benin have hosted two reigning Popes, John Paul 11 and Benedict XVI, twice each.

Pope Paul VI visited Uganda in 1969, while John Paul 11 visited in 1993.

Also, the visit will make President Yoweri Museveni the first leader on the African continent to host two Popes.

But these two prominent visits have come at a trying moment, with Kenya suffering incessant attacks carried out by the Al Shabaab, a terror organization that has, over the years, put the East Africa region on tenterhooks. Its western neighbor Uganda, which sent the first peacekeeping troops to Somalia, the birthplace of Al Shabaab, has also not been spared.

In July 2010, as people were watching the World Cup finals, the Al Shabaab group unleashed its deadliest attack on Uganda, killing over 70 people at both Kyadondo Rugby Club and at the Ethiopian Restaurant in Kansanga. This attack seems to have caught security napping.

After that, they woke up and since then several arrests of suspected terrorists have been carried out by Ugandan security, leading to some form of normalcy in security.

But the situation in Kenya is not so rosy; in September 2013 suspected Al Shabaab gunmen raided the Westgate Mall in the country, killing over 60 people and injuring hundreds. The same group has been carrying out sporadic attacks at the coastal town of Mombasa, arguably Kenya’s economic centre due to its tourism potential that brings in several hundred millions of dollars a year.

Then this year they struck again in Garissa, North East Kenya, mowing down 147 students at the upcountry university campus.

Amid all these attacks there is likely to be heightened security when Obama and the Pope visit the region.

Already, experts have started rolling out figures (millions of dollars) related to security costs for Obama’s trip to Kenya, with some arguing that the trip is a waste of US taxpayers’ money, in light of the Al Shabaab terror threats and the relations with the top Kenyan leadership, which was once thawed because the two top leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

At the time US Assistant secretary for African Affairs ambassador Johnnie Carson had warned: ‘choices have consequences’ in reference to the 2013 elections, where both Kenyatta and Ruto had been selected to vie for the two top positions, running under the Jubilee coalition.

The President has since been exonerated but it seems Ambassador Carson’s words have not been abandoned altogether as witnessed during the recent visit to Kenya of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who didn’t meet DP Ruto during the two-day visit.

The US President’s entourage is a complex affair and consists of the most sophisticated contraptions including among others the Air Force One, his official plane and the Beast, the official bullet-proof vehicle. The entourage also comprises of several hundreds of secret service operatives who man the President’s security all through his visits.

Of course, it would be foolhardy for anyone, let alone US security experts, to entrust, even for a second, the security of a US President in the inexperienced hands of the local operatives.

Just to reflect, three senior Kenyan security gurus lost their jobs in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Westgate Mall and other subsequent attacks around the country.

Internal Security minister Joseph Ole Lenku, who was once described by President Uhuru Kenyatta as an ‘embarrassment’, was fired, while National Security and Intelligence Services (NSIS) boss Maj Gen Michael Gichangi and the Inspector General of Police David Mwole Kimaiyo, both resigned.

But like Obama’s visit to Kenya, Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda will provide our security with tough tests though they might play a peripheral role in directly providing protection for the Holy Father.

For instance, if the Pope is to stay for more than a day, chances are that he will sleep at the Papal Nuncio’s home in Nsambya, meaning that local security operatives detailed to protect him will have to adequately secure the nearby and surrounding areas, which may not be an easy task, given the proximity to slum areas.

On a positive note regarding security cooperation in the Ease African region, Tanzanian intelligence recently captured the hitherto elusive Allied Democratic Front (ADF) leader Sheikh Jamil Mukulu.

Mukulu, who had eluded arrest by the Ugandan security for several years now, is an Islamist who has been fighting the government of Uganda, ostensibly to install an Islamist state.

So, in light of the terror threats in the region, Mukulu’s arrest might just ameliorate the thoughts on the lackadaisical security efforts the Americans might harbor