President Barack Obama nudged African nations Saturday to treat gays and lesbians equally under the law, a position that remains unpopular through much of the continent. Obama’s Kenyan counterpart responded by calling the matter a “non-issue” for his country.
Obama tackled the sensitive issue on his first full day in Kenya, the country of his father’s birth. 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 added during a joint news conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. “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 in outspoken terms that any overtures on gay rights would not be welcomed in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Obama’s visit to Kenya – the first by a sitting U.S. president – has been long sought by this East African nation where he is widely considered a local son.
Acknowledging that some Kenyans have been frustrated that it took him until the seventh year of his presidency to visit, Obama joked that he didn’t want the rest of Africa to think he was “playing favourites.” He will also visit Ethiopia on this trip.
Still, he noted the U.S. had concerns about violence that erupted in Kenya after its 2007 election. Kenyatta faced charges related to that violence in the International Criminal Court, though those charges were later dropped. Deputy President William Ruto, however, still faces charges at the ICC.
Obama said he was encouraged by statements Kenyatta has made about the need to root out corruption in the country, saying that’s one issue that could slow down Kenya’s economic growth and development.
Much of Obama’s discussions with Kenyatta centred on counterterrorism co-operation. Kenya has been grappling with deadly attacks from extremists, most notably Somalia-based al-Shabab, a network linked to al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab has conducted major attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall and an April attack in Garissa town that killed nearly 150 people.
“This is an existential fight for us,” Kenyatta said.
The two leaders opened their day-long meetings with a joint appearance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a U.S.-sponsored business conference. Obama announced $1-billion in commitments from the U.S. government, as well as American banks, foundations and philanthropists.
“Africa is on the move,” Obama declared.