Toronto Star

Blunt Obama lectures Kenya about gay rights

But U.S. president warmly embraces relatives from his father’s Kenyan family


NAIROBI, KENYA— U.S. President Barack Obama mixed blunt messages to Kenya’s leaders on gay rights, corruption and counterter­rorism Saturday with warm reflection­s on his family ties to a nation that considers him a local son.

He foreshadow­ed a focus on Kenya in his post-White House life, saying, “I’ll be back.”

Obama’s comments during a news conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reflected the unusual nature of his long-awaited visit to this East African nation. His official agenda has been sprinkled with opportunit­ies to reconnect with his late father’s sprawling Kenyan family, including some meeting the American president for the first time.

“There are cousins and uncles and aunties that show up that you didn’t know existed, but you’re always happy to meet,” Obama said. “There were lengthy explanatio­ns in some cases of the connection­s.”

Obama did little to paper over policy difference­s with Kenya’s government, most notably on gay rights. He drew on his own background as an African-American, noting the slavery and segregatio­n of the U.S. past and saying he is “painfully aware of the history when people are treated differentl­y under the law.”

“That’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen,” Obama said. “When a government gets in the habit of treating people differentl­y, those habits can spread.”

Kenyatta was unmoved, saying gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact.”

A number of Kenyan politician­s and religious leaders had warned Obama that any overtures on gay rights would not be welcomed in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The Kenyan gay community also complains of sometimes violent harassment.

Obama also pushed Kenya to tighten its counterter­rorism practices, which human rights groups say have resulted in serious abuses. A Human Rights Watch report this year accused the Kenyan government of “extrajudic­ial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture by security forces.”

“If in reaction to terrorism you’re restrictin­g legitimate organizati­ons, reducing the scope of peaceful organizati­on, then that can have the inadverten­t effect of increasing the pool of recruits for terrorism,” Obama said.

Kenyatta called the scourge of terrorism “an existentia­l fight for us.” The Somalia-based Al Shabab, which is linked to Al Qaeda, has conducted major attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall and an April attack in Garissa that killed nearly 150 people.

Obama also urged Kenyatta to keep up efforts to combat corruption, calling that the biggest potential threat to Kenya’s economic growth. But he said fulfilling anti-corruption pledges will require “visible prosecutio­ns” and had told Kenyatta, “People aren’t stupid.”

Obama’s trip to Kenya was the first to his father’s homeland since winning the White House, as well as the first visit by a sitting American president. Crowds gathered to watch Obama’s motorcade speed through the city. American flags lined the main road from the airport and billboards heralded his arrival.

Acknowledg­ing that some Kenyans have been frustrated that it took him until the seventh year of his presidency to visit, Obama joked that he did not want the rest of Africa to think he was “playing favourites.” He will also visit Ethiopia on this trip.

Obama’s election in 2008 was cheered in Africa, not just because of his family ties, but also because there was an expectatio­n he would devote significan­t attention to the continent. Those high hopes have been met with some disappoint­ment, given that Obama’s foreign policy has focused heavily on boosting ties with Asia and dealing with conflict in the Middle East.

The White House rejects that criticism, noting that Obama is making his fourth trip to Africa, more than any previous president. Officials are particular­ly sensitive to criticism that Obama’s Africa policies pale in comparison to his predecesso­r, George W. Bush, who launched a multibilli­on-dollar HIV/AIDS program.

On Saturday, Obama said many of his African initiative­s, including a program to vastly increase access to power, were intended to be yearslong efforts. He also credited Bush’s health programs with saving millions of lives.

“I am really proud of the work that previous administra­tions did here in Africa and I’ve done everything I could to build on those successes,” he said. “This isn’t a beauty contest between presidents.” Some of Obama’s family — his grandmothe­r, sister and aunts and uncles — joined him Saturday night for a state dinner in his honour. The president said he begged for his family’s forgivenes­s for not being able to travel outside the capital to see them in their homes, citing the presidenti­al security apparatus.

“I am really proud of the work that previous administra­tions did here in Africa and I’ve done everything I could to build on those successes.” BARACK OBAMA U.S. PRESIDENT

 ?? SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Barack Obama shares his views on gay rights, corruption and terrorism with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Barack Obama shares his views on gay rights, corruption and terrorism with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

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