US President Barack Obama greets base personnel and well-wishers upon arrival at Hill Air Force Base on April 2, 2015 in Utah. US President Barack Obama will land in town in a few months’ time. And alreadly there is high sentiment, as has always been the case, owing to his Kenyan roots. PHOTO| AFP
- Two days before the US President arrives, two US Airforce C141 cargo planes will arrive in Nairobi. In their fuselages will be tonnes of equipment, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, armoured motorcade, and two limousines.
- Also arriving on the same day are counter-assault teams, technicians, support teams and spotters.
- Information leaked by the Washington Post about his 2013 visit to Africa said the US President travelled with 56 support vehicles.
It will be high-profile time for Kenya around the world and probably the biggest promotion Kenya could have in terms of media presence around the world.
It’s a moment tourism promoters will love to leverage on and will obviously do long after Mr Obama has returned home.
And with it, there is much worry about the logistical nightmare that Nairobi will be when America’s first black president, the erstwhile skinny boy with a funny name who rose to the most powerful office in the world, lands in Nairobi,
Considered by the Secret Service as the world’s highest value target for elimination, security demands around any US president are mindboggling.
And coming against the backdrop of a terror attack at the Garissa University College that killed 147 people, the test of hosting Obama could not have come at a worse time.
It will be the biggest test in office for security chiefs. And all eyes will be on Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet.
In January, India was forced to deploy an additional 1,200 troops on certain stretches along the India-Pakistani border as a second line of defence in order to prevent infiltration of terrorists into the country during Obama’s Republic day visit.
Obama even broke India’s tradition by refusing to arrive at the venue together with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, he arrived in the Beast, the armour plated limousine with bulletproof windows that insulate him from all sorts of threats including chemical attacks.
His action was not well received by a section of the Indian community just like when Bill Clinton’s security detail in the year 2000 removed drinking water placed for him by his Tanzanian hosts on the dais.
Security analysts have predicted that similar scenarios will unfold in Kenya in July.
“In 2013, part of the reason Obama said he was not visiting Kenya at that time was insecurity and I don’t think this has changed; he is only doing so because he is obligated to because of the roots,” says James Ndung’u, the project manager of Safer World – an international non-profit organisation that works to prevent violent conflicts.
“The US President has in the past visited countries considered riskier than Kenya but what happens in such cases is his security bubble becomes tighter.
Kenyans should, therefore, be prepared to witness these as we approach July,” he says.
According to him, the Garissa University College attack is unlikely to make the President cancel his visit as the US is aware of the security situation in Kenya and has been constantly working with the government on logistics.
“Compared to other countries which cede the protection of their head of state to the host country whenever they visit, America exercises complete control,” Ndung’u says.
“It, however, works with the host country for intelligence and to provide a buffer. This could mean thousands of police officers deployed which, for the case of Kenya, could create a lapse in other areas because of the expected shortage,” he says.
In 2004, three banks were robbed in Iowa as local police concentrated on complementing the Secret Service’s role in protecting President George Bush and presidential candidate John Kerry who were both campaigning in the state.
And despite the huge human resource and financial toll presented to the local security apparatus because of his visit, federal agencies charged with keeping him safe will still not take any chances.
The American government has never disclosed how many people are involved in the planning, citing security reasons.
But information collected by the Sunday Nation indicates that any trip by the US President requires hundreds of people and thousands of hours to plan.
The countdown usually starts immediately the intended visit is mentioned in the White House. US Secret Service agents are dispatched to the would-be host country months prior to the public announcement to conduct what in security terms is known as “pre-advance”. It is expected that Nairobi is already crawling with US security agents operating under cover and on the record.
The pre-advance involves ironing out visas, passports, weapons permits, and hotels screening and booking.
“Working closely with the host country, the US team surveys the sites on the visit and then identifies locations of particular vulnerability. This could mean several preparatory trips to the country,” says the BBC.
The routes due to be taken are assessed countless times. This involves checking for escape routes, nearest hospitals and fixed objects along the way – dustbins, cars, sewers, fire hydrants, lamp posts, letter boxes and even bikes several times before the visit and just before the President arrives.
The Secret Service is specific on the width of the roads the presidential entourage can use. They should be wide enough to enable the two identical 18 ft long Beasts to perform a J-Turn in case of an emergency. This is a driving manoeuvre in which a reversing vehicle is spun 180 degrees and continues, facing forward, without changing direction of travel.
These specifications will likely reduce the options on the roads President Obama will use during his stay as Kenyan roads are considered to be narrow.
Those who will be expected to interact with the President are profiled ahead of time to determine if they will pose security threats regardless of their status in the host countries.
“With about 30 days to go, the US starts background checks on everyone the President is likely to come into contact with. They check for any miscreants or anyone in the intelligence database, looking for a sleeper or an assassin hiding in the midst,” says the Washington Post.
Five days before the US President arrives in Kenya, the Secret Service would have secured all the sites that he is expected to visit. The hotels that will accommodate his entourage, which could run into a 1,000 people, will be thoroughly swept for bugs (threats).
The hotel where he will stay and venues he will visit will have to cede ownership to the Secret Service days before his arrival. A control centre for use by his security detail will be set up at an undisclosed room in the hotel. All the furniture shall be removed and telephones changed.
There will be no room service during the President’s entire stay.
Two days before the US President arrives, two US Airforce C141 cargo planes will arrive in Nairobi. In their fuselages will be tonnes of equipment, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, armoured motorcade, and two limousines.
Also arriving on the same day are counter-assault teams, technicians, support teams and spotters.
Information leaked by the Washington Post about his 2013 visit to Africa said the US President travelled with 56 support vehicles.
“These included 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the First Family will stay. Fighter jets also flew in shifts, giving a 24-hour coverage over the President’s airspace, so they can intervene quickly if an errant plane gets too close,” said the Washington Post.
A military ship was also docked at the Tanzanian coast to provide support. The ship carries choppers that circle the area where the US President is at any one time and is fully equipped with a hospital on board and other state-of-the-art amenities.
Kenyans will begin to fully appreciate the burden of having the US President in their midst within a week to his arrival.
In 2013, several streets in Dar es Salaam were closed down four days prior to Obama’s visit.
“Movement for unauthorised persons in some areas was severely limited. Wananchi were advised to stay in their homes during the duration of Obama’s visit as hawkers were swept off the streets to give the impression that the streets were clean,” said Nation Media Group’s Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen.
Ninety minutes before Air Force One – his official jet – touches down, movement within JKIA will be restricted by his security detail who will take over. Counter sniper teams will take positions and only his jet will be allowed to approach and passengers intending to travel will be greatly disadvantaged.
And the nightmare does not end with security.
Most of the visits by American presidents to foreign countries are turned into avenues for the world’s super power to advance its policies, at times catching the host governments in awkward situations.
In 2013, while on a visit to Senegal, Obama sparked outrage throughout the continent after he urged African leaders to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians.
Already the White House has indicated that the President will address human rights issues during the visit.
Journalists intending to cover his visit will also face a lot of pain and embarrassment, and so will politicians.
In August 2012, a dispatch from State House was sent to newsrooms about the impending visit by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a briefing that was to follow.
The press waited for hours but when Clinton emerged, the session turned out to be a photo session. The same day, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Ongeri was forced to wait in his car for hours as Mrs Clinton met Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.
Kenyans will, however, bear all this in expectation of the goodies Obama will likely bring. In 2013, Obama pledged $7 billion to help combat frequent power blackouts in sub-Saharan Africa.