Obama Gets A Warm Welcome In His Father's Homeland

Obama Gets A Warm Welcome In His Father's Homeland

6:49pm Jul 25, 2015

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President Obama is in Kenya today, the country of his father's birth. He's been pushing the theme Africa is open for business, and America ought to invest, especially in young African entrepreneurs. President Obama held a joint press conference today with the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta. He praised the country's focus on rooting out corruption, but when the presidents were asked about the question of gay rights, there was a clear difference of opinion. Our correspondent Gregory Warner is in Nairobi. Greg, thanks for being back with us.


SIMON: What happened?

WARNER: Well, gay rights came up, as it had to, and President Obama was unequivocal. He told reporters that on the issue of gay rights in Africa, he believed in equality under the law.


BARACK OBAMA: When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread.

WARNER: And actually, he cited as an example his own experience as an African-American with Jim Crow laws. But Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said that to support gay rights in his country would be an unwelcome imposition.


UHURU KENYATTA: It's very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.

SIMON: I don't want to be obscure about this, Gregory. In - homosexuality is considered a crime.

WARNER: It is in 38 countries in Africa, so it's certainly an issue. And recently the deputy president said that there was no room for gays in Kenya. He said that in a church. But I will say that the issue is a little more complicated than it can seem from the outside. I'll just give you two quick examples. About three months ago, the high court of Kenya recently delivered a ruling that was celebrated by the gay community. They said gay and lesbian - they ratified a gay and lesbian human rights commission, said that the commission had to be registered even though the government refused. And also this year, the prize-winning Kenyan novelist Binyavanga Wainaina came out publically as gay in a noted blog and later in The Guardian newspaper. And he said he couldn't have done that before, but he can now. And he was criticized, but he was not harmed.

So I think that things are changing. But the issue of gay rights really comes up as a polarizing issue in the relation of the West to Africa when it's spun as this imposition of Western values on Africa, and that is so sensitive here. I mean, that's why - the importance of African voices speaking up on this issue.

SIMON: What are some of the diplomatic concerns that the presidents addressed in a county that, after all, has suffered terrorist attacks.

WARNER: Well, as you mentioned, terrorism was one and corruption was another, and actually the relationship between the two. You could see Obama trying to avoid that lecture-y tone. As I just mentioned, he was talking about his own hometown of Chicago and the bad, old days of Al Capone and corruption there. He said, well, you know, we had our corruption, and we got over it, so you can, too.

I think that although there are anti-graft initiatives going on in Kenya right now, President Obama noted the fact that there has not been a single prosecution of a high-level corrupt official in Kenya and made the point that that is - sorry - feeding terrorist recruitment. There was a recent survey that found the number one reason that Kenyans join groups like al-Shabab is because of the anti-terror tactics of the police and military, which is a huge issue for the United States, given that the government funding to the Kenyan military is now near $100 million.

SIMON: And the United States and Kenya have a powerful identical interest along these lines, too, don't they?

WARNER: Right. They're both trying to fight the war on terror, but if the war on terror is actually fueling terrorist recruitment, then that's something this countering-violent-extremism message is trying to look at, of President Obama's.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Warner in Nairobi, thanks so much.

WARNER: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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