NAIROBI — President Obama called on African nations Saturday to confer equal rights to gays and lesbians, kicking off his first full day in the nation by undertaking a topic that remains highly sensitive on the continent. Kenyan President Kenyatta dismissed the importance of gay rights, calling it a “non-issue” in the nation.
Speaking at a joint news conference after bilateral talks between the two leaders, Obama said he is “unequivocal” on the question of treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. “The idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong,” Obama said.
Obama drew a parallel to the treatment of blacks in the United States during the period of segregation and Jim Crow laws, 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 dismissive of the topic of gay rights, saying, “This issue is not on the foremost mind of Kenya — and that is a fact.”
For weeks, Kenyan leaders and locals have threatened to demonstrate and disrupt the president’s first official trip to Kenya if he brings up gay marriage, legalized in the U.S. by a Supreme Court ruling in June. “We want to warn Obama to steer clear of any comments on same-sex marriages during his visit,” Bishop Mark Kariuki said in Nairobi ahead of the speeches. “Any attempts will lead to a call for mass demonstrations across the country and disrupt his meeting.”
In the majority of Africa’s 54 states, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have to hide their sexual orientation for fear of persecution or criminal prosecution. In Kenya, homosexuality is illegal and gay marriage unconstitutional. South Africa is the only African country that permits gay marriage.
While in Kenya, Obama is scheduled to meet civil society groups to discuss human rights and civil liberties. Gay-rights activists are hoping he will help boost their cause. “We don’t want to witness scenarios where two students were expelled from a school for (being) gay,” said Dennis Nzioka, an activist in Nairobi. “We need this to stop and respect other people’s rights.”
Obama also addressed corruption, calling it one of the biggest impediments to Kenya’s future growth and opportunities. Kenyatta is serious about fighting corruption, Obama said, noting that the U.S. has seen “all kinds of corruption” in the past, but over time proved that when people decide it is a priority to end it, corruption can be stopped.
On terrorism, Obama said extremist groups like the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab are still able to harm civilians despite progress by the U.S. and others in weakening their networks. Efforts by a number of countries have decreased the militant’s control in neighboring Somalia and undercut its operations in East Africa, he said.
The president’s trip comes three months after al-Shabab gunmen massacred 148 people, mostly students, in a raid on a northeastern Kenyan university. A four-day siege in 2013 by the militants at the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi left 67 dead.
Terrorist groups that are willing to target civilians and are prepared to die can still inflict damage, Obama added, calling for more intelligence-sharing between Kenya and the U.S. to identify and prevent threats.
Obama’s three-day visit to Kenya is largely focused on boosting business and investment in the country and dealing with the region’s security threats. As he opened the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Saturday morning, Obama told Kenyans that the trip had a special resonance for him as well.
“I am proud to be the first U.S. president to visit Kenya,” he said. “Obviously, it is personal for me. It’s the reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama. My father came from these parts, I have family and relatives here.”
Obama then went on to praise Kenya’s economic growth, remarking Africa is “on the move” as one of the fastest-growing continents in the world. “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth and not just African growth,” he said. “Kenya is leading the way.”
Obama announced more than $1 billion in new commitments from the U.S. government and American banks, foundations and philanthropists — half of that money to support women and young children. “If half of your team is not playing, you’ve got a problem,” he said.
Kenyatta also addressed the summit, praising Africa as a “promising frontier of limitless opportunity.”
“Gone are the days when the only lens to view our continent was one of despair and indignity,” he said.
In between the summit and news conference, Obama visited Memorial Park for a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of the victims of the deadly 1998 bombing at the U.S. Embassy.
Dancing, singing and cheering accompanied Obama as he went from event to event in the capital city, where locals defied a security lockdown and celebrated his visit as if it were a homecoming.
“We have waited for Obama to visit the country since he became president — we want to thank God that he has finally arrived,” said Grace Wangeci, a vegetable seller in Nairobi. “We thank him for fulfilling his promise to the country before he leaves the presidency.”
Residents called the visit historic not only because Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country but also because of his ties to the nation. “We are now very happy that Obama has finally landed in the country,” said Judith Wekesa. “We can now feel the true spirit of brotherhood.”
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