Kenya at a cross­roads: Obama

Says coun­try faces ‘tough choices’ be­tween peril and prom­ise

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

Declar­ing Kenya at a “cross­roads” be­tween prom­ise and peril, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Sun­day pressed the na­tion of his fa­ther’s birth to root out cor­rup­tion, treat women and mi­nori­ties as equal cit­i­zens, and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for its fu­ture.

Clos­ing his his­toric visit with an ad­dress to the Kenyan peo­ple, Obama traced the arc of the coun­try’s evo­lu­tion from colo­nial­ism to in­de­pen­dence, as well as his own fam­ily’s history here. To­day, Obama said, young Kenyans are no longer con­strained by the lim­ited op­tions of his grand­fa­ther, a cook for the coun­try’s for­mer Bri­tish rulers, or his fa­ther, who left to seek an ed­u­ca­tion in Amer­ica.

“Be­cause of Kenya’s progress — be­cause of your po­ten­tial — you can build your fu­ture right here, right now,” Obama told the crowd of 4,500 packed into a sports arena in the cap­i­tal of Nairobi. But he bluntly warned that Kenya must make “tough choices” to bol­ster its frag­ile democ­racy and fast-grow­ing econ­omy.

Obama’s visit here, his first as pres­i­dent, cap­ti­vated a coun­try that views him as a lo­cal son. Thick crowds lined the road­ways to watch the pres­i­den­tial mo­tor­cade speed through the city Sun­day, some climb­ing on rooftops to get a bet­ter view. The au­di­ence in­side the arena chanted his name as he fin­ished his re­marks.

The pres­i­dent left Kenya Sun­day af­ter­noon, paus­ing longer than nor­mal atop the stairs to Air Force One to wave to the crowd, a huge grin on his face. He ar­rived two hours later in Ad­dis Ababa, the Ethiopian cap­i­tal, where he met with diplo­mats at the U.S. Em­bassy in the evening.

Obama has writ­ten emo­tion­ally about his first visit to Kenya as a young man nearly 30 years ago, and he re­counted many of those same mem­o­ries in his re­marks Sun­day. The bat­tered Volk­swa­gen his sis­ter drove. Meet­ing his broth­ers for the first time. The air­port em­ployee who rec­og­nized his last name.

“That was the first time that my name meant some­thing,” he said.

The pres­i­dent barely knew his fa­ther, who died in 1982 af­ter leav­ing the U.S. to re­turn to Kenya. How­ever, Obama has nu­mer­ous fam­ily mem­bers in the coun­try, in­clud­ing his half-sis­ter Auma Obama, who in­tro­duced her brother Sun­day.

“He’s one of us,” she said. “But we’re happy to share him with the world.”

The bulk of Obama’s ad­dress was a can­did com­men­tary on the East African na­tion’s fu­ture. He spent con­sid­er­able time warn­ing about the risks of gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, call­ing it an “an­chor” that could weigh down the coun­try’s promis­ing fu­ture.

“Too of­ten here in Kenya cor­rup­tion is tol­er­ated be­cause that’s how it’s al­ways been done,” he said. “Here in Kenya, it’s time to change habits.”

Kenyan Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta has taken steps to tackle cor­rup­tion by sus­pend­ing four Cab­i­net sec­re­taries and 16 other se­nior of­fi­cials amid an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of dis­hon­esty. But the ac­tion has been met with skep­ti­cism by the public be­cause in the past, sus­pen­sions of se­nior of­fi­cials haven’t re­sulted in any­one be­ing con­victed of a crime. Some of­fi­cials even re­turned to their jobs be­fore in­ves­ti­ga­tions were com­plete.

Keny­atta has been un­der public pres­sure to ad­dress cor­rup­tion fol­low­ing re­views of his 2-year-old gov­ern­ment that claimed his ad­min­is­tra­tion is more cor­rupt than pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Obama urged an end to old tribal and eth­nic di­vi­sions that are “doomed to tear our coun­try apart. He spent sig­nif­i­cant time im­plor­ing Kenyans to re­spect the rights of women and girls, say­ing that marginal­iz­ing half of a coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is ‘’stupid.” And he called for an end to forced mar­riages for girls who should oth­er­wise be at­tend­ing school and the tra­di­tion known as ‘’gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.”

“These tra­di­tions may date back cen­turies. They have no place in the 21st cen­tury,” he said.

The pres­i­dent drew on the re­cent de­bate in the U.S. over the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag, a Civil War-era relic that is seen by many as a racist sym­bol. The killing of nine peo­ple at a black church in South Carolina last month prompted a fresh de­bate over the flag, spurring some states to re­move it from gov­ern­ment grounds.

“Just be­cause some­thing is a part of your past doesn’t make it right,” Obama said.

Obama is ex­pected to of­fer sim­i­lar mes­sages about good gov­er­nance and hu­man rights dur­ing his two days of meet­ings with lead­ers in Ethiopia.

Hu­man rights groups have crit­i­cized the pres­i­dent for vis­it­ing the Horn of Africa na­tion, which is ac­cused of crack­ing down on dis­sent, some­times vi­o­lently.

Obama planned meet­ings with Ethiopia’s pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter, and a sep­a­rate ses­sion with re­gional lead­ers to dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion in South Su­dan, a young na­tion gripped by tur­moil since civil war broke out in De­cem­ber 2013.

Coun­ter­ing the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab in neigh­bour­ing So­ma­lia also is on the agenda for Obama’s meet­ings with Ethiopian lead­ers. The ex­trem­ist threat was made clear anew Sun­day when al-Shabab claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for a sui­cide truck bomb­ing at a lux­ury ho­tel in Mo­gadishu, So­ma­lia’s cap­i­tal, that killed eight peo­ple and shat­tered a pe­riod of calm in the city.

AP PHOTO

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama shakes hands af­ter de­liv­er­ing a speech Sun­day in Nairobi, Kenya.

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