Kenya at crossroads, says Obama

Mr Barack Obama (right) greeting the crowd after delivering his address to Kenyans at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi yesterday. Much of his speech stressed his affinity with young Kenyans, a vital group in a country where 60 per cent of the po
Mr Barack Obama (right) greeting the crowd after delivering his address to Kenyans at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi yesterday. Much of his speech stressed his affinity with young Kenyans, a vital group in a country where 60 per cent of the population is aged under 24.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US leader urges country to deepen democracy, tackle graft, end inequality

NAIROBI • United States President Barack Obama told Kenyans yesterday on his first presidential trip to his father's homeland that there was "no limit to what you can achieve" but said they had to deepen democracy, tackle corruption and end exclusion based on gender or ethnicity.

"Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with enormous peril, but also enormous promise," he said in his address to the nation, which was televised live.

After political talks on Saturday with President Uhuru Kenyatta on security and business, his speech to a packed sports hall in Nairobi struck a personal note, talking of his own experience and Kenya's in the five decades since independence.

"I'm here as president of a country that sees Kenya as an important partner. I'm here as a friend who wants Kenya to succeed," he said, after being introduced by his sister, Ms Auma Obama, to a crowd of 4,500, many of whom had secured tickets to attend.

To a mixture of applause and laughter, he described being picked up at the airport on his first visit to Kenya in the 1980s by his sister in an old VW Beetle that often broke down. This time, he arrived on Air Force One and travelled in the President's armoured car nicknamed "The Beast".

"When it comes to the people of Kenya, particularly the youth, I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve," he said, but he told Kenyans that building their nation and the economy required personal effort and responsibility.

Much of his speech stressed his affinity with young Kenyans, a vital group in a country where 60 per cent of the population is aged under the age of 24.

On corruption, an issue often blamed for holding back investment, he said money spent on bribes would be better paid to someone "doing an honest day's work".

Referring to ethnic fighting in which 1,200 people died after a disputed 2007 election, he told Kenyans that politics based on ethnicity was "doomed to tear a country apart". He also warned that Kenya would "not succeed if it treats women and girls as second-class citizens".

Mr Obama spoke of Kenya's challenge in dealing with attacks by the Somali Islamist militant group Al Shabaab, and promised that the United States would stand by Kenya as a "partner".

Kenya's tourist industry has been hammered by attacks by Al Shabaab, which raided a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013 and attacked a university in the north-east in April. Hundreds were killed in those and other attacks.

After Kenya, Mr Obama yesterday travelled to Ethiopia, a nation brought to its knees by famine in the 1980s, but now boasts some of the fastest economic growth rates on the continent.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Kenya at crossroads, says Obama'. Print Edition | Subscribe