President Obama arrived on Friday in Kenya, his father’s home country, for the start of a four-day swing through East Africa, combining a personal journey with a geopolitical mission that reinforces a shared campaign against Islamist extremism while wrestling with tough messages about democracy and gay rights.
Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Kenya, arrived on Air Force One after dark to a deliberately low-key, even anticlimactic, reception, with none of the pomp that is being saved for daylight on Saturday. He was greeted on the tarmac by President Uhuru Kenyatta and an 8-year-old girl who handed him flowers. He then shook hands with dignitaries along a red carpet and signed a guest book before getting into his armored car.
His motorcade ride into the city was eerily quiet, without the sort of throngs often lining the route when an American president visits a country in Africa or elsewhere for the first time. Concerned about security, the Kenyan authorities closed major highways at 2 p.m., and the business district was deserted for much of the day. Those who did wait along the route in clutches of several hundred at a time recorded the moment of history on cellphone cameras.
But that did not mean Kenyans were not excited about the arrival of a major world figure they consider their own. Roads have been cleaned and repaved, flowers planted and lights fixed along every route that Mr. Obama will travel. American flags are flying and being sold across the Nairobi, the capital. T-shirts emblazoned with Mr. Obama’s face are being sold at stores and wooden roadside stalls.
“Son of a Kenyan Student Who Changed the World,” screamed the headline of the newspaper The Daily Nation this week. Another major newspaper, The Standard, ran a 128-page issue on Friday about “the son of a Kenyan father who rose from obscurity to rule the world.” On his ride into the city, Mr. Obama passed a billboard that said, “Karibu POTUS,” using the Swahili word for welcome to greet the president of the United States.
“He’s a man I admire for his humble background,” said Wilfred Olali, 35, a human-rights activist. “Rising from a community organizer to president. That’s in itself really inspirational.”
Mr. Obama emphasized his ties to Kenya shortly after his arrival when he had dinner at his hotel with about three dozen members of his extended family, including his half sister, Auma, and his step-grandmother, known as Mama Sarah.
The powerful symbolism masked the daunting challenges as Mr. Obama tries to use the visit to Kenya and then Ethiopia to deepen trade ties, encourage economic development and bolster efforts to combat the Shabab, a ruthless affiliate of Al Qaeda based in Somalia, while nudging both countries away from the repression of dissent that has characterized recent years.
Mr. Obama will face several awkward moments. In Nairobi, where he will address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit meeting, he will be honored at a state dinner by Mr. Kenyatta, who was charged with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court, where he was accused of helping to instigate violence that killed more than 1,000 people after disputed elections in 2007. The case against Mr. Kenyatta was dropped last December for lack of evidence, but his deputy president, William Ruto, still faces similar charges and will be on hand for the visit.
Mr. Obama defended his decision to visit the two countries. “What we found is that when we combined blunt talk with engagement, that gives us the best opportunity to influence and open up space for civil society,” he told the BBC before leaving Washington. He compared the trip to visiting Russia and China. “Even when we know that there are significant human rights violations taking place, we want to make sure that we’re there so that we can have this conversation and point them in a better direction.”
Mr. Obama brings to the task enormous popularity in Africa. In Kenya, 80 percent of those surveyed in the spring have confidence in him to do the right thing, while 65 percent of those in Ethiopia agree, according to the Pew Research Center.
“There’s huge, runaway expectations in Kenya about this trip,” said Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There was a lot of disappointment when he went to Ghana that he did not make his first trip to Kenya.”
In choosing Kenya and Ethiopia for his fourth visit to sub-Saharan Africa, though, Mr. Obama opted to go where no president has gone before. In a continent rife with corruption and autocracy, visiting American presidents usually stick to a handful of what one analyst called “safe-bet countries” with largely functioning civil societies, like Ghana, South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania. They stayed away from places like Kenya and Ethiopia.
“That’s why this visit is so important, because he’s sort of breaking out of that mold, and I think that’s an important step,” said Witney Schneidman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative.
The Shabab have carried out horrific attacks, killing at least 67 people at Westgate Shopping Mall in 2013 and nearly 150 at Garissa University College just three months ago. Three autonomous Shabab units in northeast Kenya and on the coast operate in close-knit, secret and highly mobile cells that take over whole villages for hours or even days before being forced out, according to E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy Africa program director for the International Crisis Group.
But in responding to the threat, Kenya has cracked down on those seen as disloyal. Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First cite unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, excessive force and interethnic violence. Two advocacy groups, Haki Africa and Muslims for Human Rights, or Muhuri, were placed on a list of entities suspected of ties to the Shabab. Although a court ruled that they do not belong on the list, their bank accounts remain frozen.
Ethiopia, the second-most-populous state in sub-Saharan Africa, has an impressive record of economic development, averaging 10 percent growth over the last decade. But it too has shrunk the space for dissent. The government recently released a half-dozen journalists and bloggers whose arrests had generated international protests, but others remain locked up.
Mr. Obama might not have gone to Ethiopia except that it is the home of the African Union, which he will address. The United States has relied on Ethiopia’s military as a bulwark against the Shabab in Somalia, where an African Union force with both Ethiopian and Kenyan troops has succeeded in sweeping militants out of the capital and other towns.
Terrence Lyons, an associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University, said Mr. Obama’s visit gives him influence. “This is a big, big deal in Ethiopia,” he said. “And therefore to me, the question is how has that leverage been used in ways that can advance U.S. interests in democracy and human rights? And I think at least to date the answer — there hasn’t been much to show for it.”