NAIROBI, Kenya - President Barack Obama is vowing to raise gay and lesbian rights on his trip to Africa, despite Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto admonishing against it.
Ruto in June said Obama should not bring up gay rights because Kenya is a “God-fearing nation and we will be firm on what is right.”
But Obama, for whom support of gay rights has been a signature issue, told the BBC in an interview ahead of his trip that he was “not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, on the basis of religion, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.”
Obama said he was “very blunt” about the issue when he faced similar resistance on a trip to Senegal, where, like Kenya and much of Africa, homosexuality is a crime -- in some countries punishable by death.
“I think that this is actually part and parcel of the agenda that's also going to be front and center, and that is how are we treating women and girls,” Obama said. “As somebody who has family in Kenya and knows the history of how the country so often is held back because women and girls are not treated fairly, I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientation.”
Human rights activists are divided on whether Obama should press the country. Some in the country are “very nervous” about Obama raising the issue, but Brian Dooley of Human Rights Watch said he didn’t think Obama could avoid it and activists want the subject to be raised.
“They say he went to West Africa in 2013 and tackled the issue head-on and it would be wrong for him to go to East Africa a couple years later and be cowed into silence about it,” said Dooley, who spoke to reporters from Washington, D.C. At the same time, Jedidah Waruhiu, commissioner of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, warned on the same call that Obama needs to step lightly, calling it an “emotive issue” in the socially conservative country.
“However much he feels strongly about this issue, this is an issue that will cloud other important issues like security and trade in the country, because any other good thing he says or does in the country will be whitewashed with the whole issue of LGBTI issues, because of where we sit as a nation,” she said.
Obama lands later today in Kenya for his first presidential trip to his father’s homeland, accompanied by 20 lawmakers, many of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The lawmakers, who will travel to Kenya and Ethiopia as part of the presidential delegation, include Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., along with Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., John Conyers, D-Mich., Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Al Green, D-Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Robin Kelly, D-Ill., Gwen Moore, D-Wis., Donald Payne, D-N.J, Cedric Richmond, D-La., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
Markey, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said although democracy, governance, and human rights remain sticking points between the U.S. and a number of African leaders, “this trip is an important moment to highlight for the world the gains that Africa is making.
“I have tremendous optimism for the African continent,” Markey said.
Obama in an interview with the BBC before leaving for Africa, said the trip was important to pull off, even in the face of recent terrorist attacks in Kenya launched by the Somalia-based al Shabab.
He noted the two countries cooperate on counterterrorism efforts and that the trip would strengthen those ties and “underscores our commitment to partnering with countries around the world, even though we're not intimidated by terrorist organizations.”
Obama will address a White House-initiated Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Saturday and said there was a link between security and entrepreneurship.
“When people see opportunity, when they have a sense of control of their own destiny, then they're less vulnerable to the propaganda and twisted ideologies that have been attracting young people - particularly now being turbocharged through social media,” he said. “The more we can encourage entrepreneurship, particularly for young people, the more they have hope.”
But Obama, who has urged African governments to embrace more open government, said the governments are going to need root out corruption and ensure that regulations “are not designed just to advantage elites, but are allowing people who have a good idea to get out there and get things done.”
Some observers have criticized Obama for going to Kenya, which has deep seated corruption and authoritarian Ethiopia, which has cracked down on opposition parties -- the ruling party was elected with 100 percent of the vote -- and jailed journalists.
“They're not ideal institutions,” Obama said. “But what we found is, is that when we combined blunt talk with engagement, that gives us the best opportunity to influence and open up space for civil society. And the human rights agenda that we think is so important.”
He cited his trip to Burma, arguing that it “solidified and validated the work of dissenters and human rights activists” and has allowed them to pursue democracy.
“Our view is, in the same way that I visited Russia, and in the same way that I visited China, even when we know that there are significant human rights violations taking place, we want to make sure that we're there so that we can have this conversation and point them in a better direction,” Obama said.