Though welcomed here as a “son of Kenyan soil,” President Barack Obama faces a difficult balancing act as he seeks to mend frayed ties with the country while also prodding it to move more forcefully to end corruption and embrace democracy.
Obama sought to do that on Saturday, meeting with Kenyan’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to discuss enhanced cooperation even as Obama acknowledged that a violent 2007 election and allegations against Kenyatta likely contributed to delaying the much-anticipated trip to his father’s homeland until the second to last year of his presidency.
“I wanted to make sure that people didn’t think I was playing favorites,” Obama joked at a joint press conference after the meeting. But he noted that the election violence, for which Kenyatta faced human rights charges until they were dropped in December, had contributed to U.S. concerns about Kenya’s commitment to democracy.
“All countries, big and small, not just African countries, should be held to high standards in making sure that elections, democratic processes don’t lead to violence,” Obama said. Major irregularities in vote-counting sparked tribal attacks that left more than 1,000 dead.
Obama said the most recent election and a new constitution Kenya adopted in 2010 shows progress and that Kenyatta acknowledged “there’s still more work to be done.”
Even as they found areas to agree, one stark difference emerged. Kenya is one of more than two dozen African countries where homosexuality is illegal, and Obama likened it to racial discrimination.
As an African-American in the U.S., I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently under the law
President Barack Obama
“If you look at the histories of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen,” Obama said.
Kenyatta was wholly unmoved, saying Kenyan society does not accept gay rights.
Maybe once, like you have, overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on gay rights
They aimed at more common ground on battling corruption, which Obama said is the “biggest impediment to Kenya growing even faster” because companies don’t want to pay bribes at every turn.
Kenyatta’s administration earlier this year declared an “unwavering war against corruption” and Obama said he believes the Kenyan president is “serious about going after this.” Obama commiserated, noting it’s been tackled in the U.S, including his hometown of Chicago which had “Al Capone, boot leggers, bribery and police on the take.”
But few court cases have proceeded in Kenya and corruption appears to be “fighting back,” said Jedidah Waruhiu of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights. The country ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with Transparency International placing it 145 out of 175 countries on its corruption index.
Corruption in Kenya, though not at the same magnitude of some of the oil-producing countries such as Nigeria, is built into the system, said John Campbell, a former ambassador to Nigeria and senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bribes are common, if not expected, at every step of the way.
“It’s how you get things done,” Campbell said. “It’s also predatory. It’s the poor who end up paying the bills as it adds a cost to everything.”
Obama began the anti-corruption message at his first stop of the day, lacing a speech that lauded the potential of entrepreneurs with a caution that governments need to get serious about anti-corruption efforts.
At the press conference, he called for “visible prosecutions” as he decried that businesses and ordinary Kenyans are “constantly sacked by corruption at a high level and at a low level.”
He and Kenyatta also pledged to work closer on efforts to battle the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, which has launched terrorist attacks in neighboring Kenya, gunning down 168 at a university last April and heightening security for Obama’s visit.
Human rights activists have criticized the Kenyan police and military for using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to clamp down on opposition groups and warn that tough-on-terror tactics employed against Somali immigrants in the country run the risk of becoming recruitment tools.