DECLARING Kenya at a “crossroads” between promise and peril, President Barack Obama yesterday pressed the nation of his father’s birth to root out corruption, treat women and minorities as equal citizens, and take responsibility for its future.
Closing his historic visit with an address to the Kenyan people, Mr Obama traced the arc of the country’s evolution from colonialism to independence, as well as his own family’s history.
Yesterday, Mr Obama said young Kenyans are no longer constrained by the limited options of his grandfather, a cook for the country’s former British rulers, or his father, who left to seek an education in America.
“Because of Kenya’s progress – because of your potential – you can build your future right here, right now,” he told the crowd of 4,500 packed into a sports arena in the capital of Nairobi.
Mr Obama’s Kenyan visit, his first as US president, captivated a country that views him as a local son. Crowds lined the roadways to watch his motorcade speed through the city yesterday.
The president barely knew his father, who died in 1982 after leaving the US to return to Kenya. However, Mr Obama has numerous family members in the country, including half-sister Auma Obama, who introduced her brother yesterday. “He’s one of us,” she said. “But we’re happy to share him with the world.”
Mr Obama warned about the risks of government corruption, calling it an “anchor” that could weigh down the country’s promising future.
“Too often here in Kenya corruption is tolerated because that’s how it’s always been done,” he said. “Here in Kenya, it’s time to change habits.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken steps to tackle corruption by suspending four Cabinet secretaries and 16 other senior officials amid a dishonesty investigation. But the action has been met with skepticism by the public because in the past, suspensions of senior officials have not led to convictions.
Mr Obama urged an end to old tribal and ethnic divisions that are “doomed to tear our country apart”. He spent significant time imploring Kenyans to respect the rights of women and girls, saying that marginalising half of a country’s population is “stupid”. And he called for an end to forced marriages for girls who should be attending school and “genital mutilation”.
Some of those in attendance for the speech said they were inspired by his appeal for progress in Kenya. Upenbo Abraham, a 23-year-old economics student from an area of western Kenya near Obama’s relatives, said he was “encouraged, as a poor boy from a village next to his home”.