WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama leaves today for a 17-day, six-country African visit, returning to his deceased father's Kenyan home, scrambling to retool the trip at the last minute because of the reluctance of Sudan to grant him a visa.
Though members of Congress routinely visit nations on the troubled African continent with no media fanfare, Obama departs for Cape Town at the tip of South Africa followed by a local, national and international press corps that could swell to 25 by the time he hugs his Kenyan grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters.
In the works for months
The Sudan leg was always an iffy proposition because of the uncertainty that a visa would be granted to Obama, who has been trying to use his unique position as the son of a Kenyan and the only African American in the Senate to pressure the Sudan government to stop the genocidal killings in the Darfur region.
The Obama trip had been planned for months, with the final days originally to have been spent visiting a refugee camp in Darfur, to throw a spotlight on the 21st century killings the United States deemed a genocide in 2004.
Wednesday afternoon, with no confirmation of a Sudan visa -- and with growing concerns about security in the camps anyway -- Obama's office decided instead that he would visit Darfur refugees living in camps in neighboring Chad.
Obama's staff did not want to change again when word came late Wednesday from the State Department that Sudan was likely to approve visas for Obama and his staff.
The nod from Sudan did come on Thursday. I went to the Sudan Embassy in Washington on July 14 asking for a visa to cover Obama's African travels with a letter stating I would be leaving on or about Aug. 14, which at the time was my intention. Thursday afternoon, I got a call from the Sudan Embassy here to drop by and pick up my visa.
I talked with Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman, on my cell phone as I was waiting for my passport to be processed in the Sudan Embassy. I wanted the visa to keep my options open as I travel the next weeks with Obama. I'll be filing columns, unloading sidebars on my blog, shooting photos and -- something new for me -- video reports you will find at www.suntimes.com.
Gibbs said the "excessive delay'' of Sudan in granting trip visas -- and the security warnings -- forced their hand. I don't know if Sudan intended a delay tactic, but that was the practical impact.
Last week, I talked with Obama about his upcoming trip and the possibility that Sudan would run up the clock.
"I think that signifies that they feel they have something to hide. I don't think it's any secret [that] Sudan has been recalcitrant on dealing with an inhumane and inexcusable situation,'' he said.
Obama will visit the major regions of sub-Saharan Africa -- South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Congo, Djibouti and Chad. Much of the time will be spent in Kenya. This trip comes as Obama's enormous celebrity is growing as he is being mentioned as a 2008 White House contender -- and his second book is released this fall. Obama spent part of last week recording the book-on-tape version in a Chicago studio. Obama's campaign fund -- Obama 2010 -- sent out an e-mail Thursday promising pictures and audio reports from Obama in Africa.
I asked Obama to finish a sentence for me: You're going to Africa because?
Said Obama, "I'm going because Africa is important."