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Obama calls for gay rights in Kenya

July 25, 2015

During a landmark visit to his father's homeland Kenya, US President Barack Obama has called for greater rights for the gay community in Africa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has said it was a "non-issue."

Barack Obama in Kenia mit Präsident Uhuru Kenyatta bei gemeinsamer Konferenz in Nairobi
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

During the US president's first full-day in Kenya, Barack Obama called for greater rights for the gay community in Africa, noting that he was "painfully aware of the history when people are treated differently under the law."

"I've been consistent all across Africa on this. When you start treating people differently, because they're different, that's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode. And bad things happen," Obama said in a sign of open disagreement with his Kenyan counterpart.

"When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently those habits can spread. As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law. I am unequivocal on this," Obama said.


The subject of gay rights was a point of contention between to the two presidents at a joint press conference, where Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said that for Kenyans, it was a "non-issue."

"There are some things that we must admit we don't share. It's very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. This is why I say for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue," Kenyatta said.

Many Kenyan politicians are opposed to gay rights in the country, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Obama noted that for "a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working at a job and obeying the traffic signs and not harming anybody, the idea they will be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong, full stop."

Counterterrorism in focus

The US president also added that the US and Kenya were boosting cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab militants based in Somalia, who have launched a number of deadly attacks in the East African country, including one on Nairobi's Westgate shopping center in 2013.

"We have systematically reduced the territory that al-Shabab controls. We have been able to decrease their effective control within Somalia and have weakened those networks operating here in East Africa. That doesn't mean the problem is solved," Obama said.

"We can degrade significantly the capacity of the terrorist organizations, but they can still do damage," the US president added.

Both presidents also highlighted the deadly civil war in South Sudan and the elections in Burundi, which Obama said "weren't credible."

Corruption: an impediment to Kenya's growth

The US president called corruption the biggest hurdle Nairobi's leaders faced on their path to more growth opportunities in the future. Speaking with Kenyatta, Obama emphasized his faith on Kenyatta's willingness to do away with corruption.

People were being "consistently sapped by corruption at a high level and a low level," Obama said, adding that there was a need for "visible prosecutions" to show citizens that action was being taken. "They don't have to be a forensic accountant to know what is going on," he argued.

The US leader also announced joint plans with Kenya to launch direct flights between the two countries. Eliminating multiple legs of travel would be a boon to the economy and tourism, he said. US officials were working with their Kenyan counterparts to resolve security issues and protocols before direct services between the two countries could begin, but there were no indications on how soon that could happen.

This is Obama's first trip as US president to his father's home country. Despite focus on Obama's extended family in Kenya, his trip has been a strategic visit to foster cooperation on trade and counterterrorism with the east African country.

Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Kenya on Sunday, before he departs for Ethiopia.

ls/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)