How Barack Obama Sr’s brilliance changed Kenya

The iconic Bomas of Kenya, one of the many projects Barack Obama Snr conceived. FILE PHOTO |

What you need to know:

  • The father of America’s 44th president was a controversial character, hugely labelled for his small sins.
  • He was an icon who shaped Kenya’s tourism industry and physical infrastructure — roads, aviation, harbour, electricity and railway.
  • He conceived and planned the Bomas of Kenya and made possible the construction of the landmark Hilton Hotel in the capital city.

On the morning of November 23, 1982, the body of a male adult was found in a mangled pick-up on Elgon Road in Upper Hill, Nairobi. The then popular Nairobi Times newspaper carried the subsequent story as a brief (journalistic lingo for a very short story) almost a week after the discovery of the body.

Barack Hussein Obama Snr had left behind “four wives and several children”, the newspaper reported.

On the same day, the Nairobi Times carried a story on the death of thespian Stella Awinja, a student at the University of Nairobi. She was also killed in an accident, struck by a building block that fell from the top floors of Lilian Towers on University Way, which was under construction as she walked by.

In contrast to the shy coverage Obama attracted, the piece about Awinja covered nearly a third of a page.


While Awinja — who, ironically lived in the same Mawenzi Estate neighbourhood as Obama, according to some accounts — is immortalised in a hostel name at the university, Barack Obama disappeared just like his soul — until his son traversed America’s politics as a colossus.

Dozens of books have been written about the man since his son became the first black president of the world’s most powerful nation.

Indeed, for a man whose role in Kenya’s economic development is immense, the mild news coverage was perplexing. Yet it would be rash to fault the media.

The father of America’s 44th president was certainly a controversial character, hugely labelled for the small sins (love of whisky) rather than his national, nay regional, achievement (economic planner of repute).

Critics dismiss him as a person in continuous self-destruct mode, one whose life ricocheted between drinking and womanising.

It is thus hardly surprising that indefatigable wordsmith Philip Ochieng said Barack Obama Snr could easily have been mistaken for the fabled “Mr Toad”, the excitedly reckless character in Kenneth Grahame’s novel, The Wind in the Willows, and also in the play, Toad of Toad Hall. The “Mr Toad” depiction clearly tickled David Maraniss, a top editor at America’s Washington Post who met Ochieng as he researched for his blockbuster Barack Obama: The Story.

In The Wind in the Willows, Mr Toad is intelligent, creative and resourceful. However, he also appears conceited, self-centred and in complete lack of even the most basic common sense. His reckless streak exposes itself when he steals a car and subsequently crashes it.

“Obama was excitable, and this explains the many road accidents he was involved in,” says Ochieng, in apparent reference to reported motor crashes in 1965, 1967, 1969 that broke his limbs, and the 1982 one that killed him.


I traversed the country in 2010 as David Maraniss’ research contact. Philip Ochieng’s portrayal of BHO — as Barack’s friends fondly called him — cropped up in virtually every interview I contacted, even in his birthplace in K’Ogelo Kanyadhiang’, Kendu Bay, and in K’Ogelo Nyang’oma in Siaya, where the family later moved to.

Only a handful of his allies spoke about his achievements on the national level: He was an icon who shaped Kenya’s tourism industry and physical infrastructure — roads, aviation, harbour, electricity and railway.

He conceived and planned the Bomas of Kenya, the cultural milestone in Nairobi’s Lang’ata. He made possible the construction of the landmark Hilton Hotel that is the soul of Kenya’s capital. Obama’s Kenya Tourist Development Corporation (KTDC) contributed two-thirds of the costs towards the Hilton’s construction.

The quintessential 9,000-km Northern Corridor transport road network was also his project. And at the time of his death, at age 46, he was a top contender for the position of Central Bank of Kenya governor.

Indeed, the cynicism in media coverage of the icon’s death opens the inside of a controversial lifestyle — and perhaps the modest life of the man. To the media, he was personification of Mr Toad — excitedly self-destructive. When I inquired from Ochieng whether or not BHO was a drunkard, he quipped thus “not any more than I was … I was told he was quite knowledgeable about his work.”


Barack’s true story as a topnotch economic planner is preserved at the Kenya National Archives — not in the streets and villages that are a magnet to those in search of Kenya’s own Mr Toad.

As will be seen later in this article, after his tumultuous exit from the KTDC, Obama removed himself from Kenya and decided to tour the world. He became so broke; it was Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki who later picked him from the abyss of depression and gave him a job in his ministry in 1975.

The following year he was picked to head the Department of Industry and Infrastructure, according to the staff directorate of Government of Kenya, 1976. Other officers in the department included H.B Kigunda, K. Winkel, Z.J Opore, A.G Bevis, D.W Kabunge, and G. Richards.

He was moved the following year to head the commerce section in the ministry. He seized his new job with the vicious attack he only reserved for double whisky.

When Robert Ouko was made Minister for Planning — following its split from the Finance docket then headed by Kibaki — BHO was given the position of planning officer “responsible for industrial development planning, including preparation of papers for New Projects Committee and Industrial Protection Committee”, according to the government staff directorate. He was in charge of road development, building and construction. That was in 1978.

Huge corporates, among them the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, Kenya Airways, Kenya Harbours (Kenya Ports Authority) were placed in his docket.

Obama would later become a key plank in the development of the Northern Corridor road transport network. For most of 1981, just before he lost his life, Obama shuttled between Lusaka and Brussels, Addis Ababa, Kampala and Kigali, representing the Kenyan Government in meetings with donors on infrastructural development in the region.

Indeed, it is ironic that through infrastructure projects like Power Africa, the US president is helping to fulfil what his father started


Nine months before the fateful accident, BHO led a Kenyan delegation to a meeting with donors in Brussels that deliberated funding for the proposed major road network.

Obama oversaw the Mombasa-Kampala-Kigali-Bujumbura Transport System, which was part of his Northern Corridor road initiative. And on January 19 to 22, 1981, he attended the sixth meeting of the Kenya-Sudan joint technical committee on the Lodwar-Juba Road Link, where he was the sole representative of his ministry.

The “transport and communication” section of President Moi’s speech to the Organisation of African Unity (since renamed African Union) in 1980 was drafted by Obama. He also, with other officials of the ministry, wrote a brief for the OAU.

Although his drinking appeared to have hampered his rise in government, he at one time was in the same position as his Maseno schoolmate, Yekoyada Francis Omoto Masakhalia, who would later serve as Finance minister in Moi’s administration.

Masakhalia worked with Obama at KTDC and later at Treasury. “Drink didn’t interfere with Obama’s work”. As the permanent secretary for Economic Planning Ministry, Masakhalia kept delegating his duties to Obama in 1980 to 1982.


Yet it wasn’t just roads, railways and air transport under Obama’s watch. He came up with the Tourism Industry Licensing Bill in 1967/8 to help authorities keep records of tourists visiting Kenya.

So powerful was Obama at KTDC that he distressed his bosses. In fact, a number of board members were unhappy with reports indicating that Obama was a regular feature on Voice of Kenya (VoK) talk shows. They said he was drawing two salaries.

But the Richard Leakey-Obama silent rivalry is the sub-plot in the story.

As KTDC’s second in command in 1967-70, Obama resisted attempts by conservationist Leakey and hotelier W M Dunford of Carnivore to “take over” the cultural centre he had proposed, planned and moved to construct.

Obama drew up the concept for the “African Village” and proposed it be sited near the “entrance to the Nairobi National Park so that we would be in a position to tap visitors who are going to the park” and that it should not be “too far away from the city centre so that those who would wish to go there by means other than car can have easy access”, he said in a letter to the Ministry of Tourism.

He added: “Furthermore, the village should be in a wooded area, which would give the impression of forest dwellings, which is what many tourists think Africa is like.”

Jan Mohamed, the assistant Minister for Tourism, had suggested that the proposed village be located over the Ngong Hills.

Yet, even as he pondered the idea of the African Village, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the University of Nairobi planned to either create their own cultural facility or take over Obama’s idea.

As NMK’s head, Leakey said he had no plans to “steal the show from anybody” but was merely concerned about the likelihood of “duplication of effort”. His organisation, he stated was “willing and competent” to develop the cultural facility.

The cultural village should be constructed by “professional people who are versed in the subjects in anthropology and ethnology”, Leakey stressed in a letter to the Tourism ministry in an apparent swipe at Obama. Obama was unrepentant. Leakey would later write to Obama requesting “informal discussions” over the matter. Obama had had his way.


However, Obama’s Achilles Heel was his arrogance and self-conceit. After winning the war of wits with Leakey and Dunford, Obama went ahead and varied the Bomas project’s valuation and awarded the tender unilaterally, without involving the board.

Among members of the board were Kenneth Matiba, John Michuki, G G Kariuki, Masakhalia and Ondiek Chilo. He reasoned that he had the authority to do so and that other officials were dilly-dallying, delaying the project.

The board would hear none of this. It called Obama’s decision a “gross action of irresponsibility”.

On June 2, 1970, the board sacked Obama and gave the tender to a different company. But Bomas of Kenya was developed the way Obama had conceived it.

J B Omondi, a close friend of Obama who once served as director of External Aid, was part of the Northern Corridor Committee headed by Obama.

During my interview with him in 2010, it emerged that Obama’s lethargic rise in government wasn’t entirely about his drink; it was about the anti-Luo politics of the establishment — and given that he wasn’t exactly a political conformist.

“We used to work into the night; he was a workaholic,” said Omondi.

Yet many today only remember him for his twin sins of whisky and women.