U.S. President Barack Obama received a rock star’s welcome during his first presidential visit to Kenya, the country where his father was born.
Billing himself as America’s first Kenyan-American president, Mr Obama targeted his speech at the country’s young people and leaders of the future.
He told a thousands-strong crowd, that had gathered at the Safaricom arena in Nairobi, that their country is at a crossroads and urged them to ‘choose the path to progress’.
‘I’m here as president of a country that sees Kenya as an important partner. I’m here as a friend who wants Kenya to succeed,’ he said, in a 40-minute speech that was broadcast live on local TV.
‘You can choose the path to progress, but it requires making some important choices.’
The U.S. president urged the nation’s leaders to continue to root out corruption, eliminate income equality and end tribal conflict and gender violence.
‘The future of Africa is up to Africans,’ he said, adding that ‘Kenya is on the move. Africa is on the move’.
‘For too long I think that many looked to the outside for salvation and focused on somebody else being at fault for the problems of the continent.
‘We can see that future for Kenya on the horizon, but tough choices are going to have to be made.’
He also warned that the ‘cancer’ of corruption was costing the country 250,000 jobs.
The president, playing on his status as a ‘son of the soil’, was introduced by his half-sister Auma, who described him as ‘my brother, your brother, our son.’
As well as the more than 4,000 people packed into the indoor area, thousands more people lined the president’s motorcade route to the arena.
‘When it comes to the people of Kenya, particularly the youth, I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve,’ added Mr Obama, who arrived in the country on Friday.
‘Because of Kenya’s progress – because of your potential – you can build you future right here, right now.’
Mr Obama’s father was born and is buried in Kenya, and the country has waited for years for the opportunity to welcome him back as president.
Although one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, Kenya is struggling to overcome numerous challenges posed by widespread corruption, tribal conflict and the threat posed for the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab.
The group, based in neighbouring Somalia, has killed scores of people over the past two years, attacking a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013, and a university in the northeast in April.
Mr Obama said that continued tribal and ethnic divisions are ‘doomed to tear our country apart’.
The president also called for an end to violence against women, forced marriages for girls who should be in school, sexual assault and female genital mutilation.
He said: ‘These traditions may date back centuries. They have no place in the 21st century.’
Mr Obama’s historic visit is the first time an American president has visited Kenya during his term in office.
He is due to travel to Ethiopia on Sunday, and will address the continent from the headquarters of the African Union, both representing firsts for a U.S. president.
But despite the warm welcome from the people, Kenya’s leader Mr Kenyatta did not seem so enamoured during a discussion on gay rights yesterday.
Mr Obama spoke out in criticism of Kenya’s treatment of homosexuals, comparing discrimination against gay people to racism.
He added that ‘law-abiding’ citizens should not be punished for loving a particular person.
‘As an African-American in the United States I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently,’ he said.
‘When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they are doing, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.
‘[If] somebody is a law-abiding citizen… the idea they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong. Full stop.’
But Mr Kenyatta, standing on a stage alongside Mr Obama, declared that gay rights are a ‘non-issue’ in Kenya.
‘The fact of the matter is, Kenya and the U.S. share so many values: common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families – these are some things that we share,’ said Mr Kenyatta.
‘But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share, our culture, our societies don’t accept.’
Eric Gitari, who heads a Kenyan gay rights groups, praised Obama for tackling the matter on Saturday night on the basis of ‘the dignity of people by speaking about simple human to human interactions.’ U.S. group Human Rights First also issued a statement praising Obama for addressing the issue.
Some African rights groups, and prominent Kenyan politicians, had urged Obama to tread cautiously on the issue to avoid inflaming public opinion.
South Africa is the only African nation to allow same-sex marriage.
Kenyan President Uhuhu Kenyatta said on Saturday that Mr Obama will be remembered in Africa for his support for the continent’s young people, a vital section of the country’s population.
Nearly a third of Kenya’s population are aged between 10 and 24, and about 60 per cent of the population is younger than 35, according to the US government.
Mr Kenyatta has taken steps to tackle corruption by suspending four Cabinet secretaries and 16 other senior officials in an investigation into allegations of dishonesty.
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