Obama Visits Ethiopia and Kenya, Land of His Father, to Discuss Counterterrorism, Gay Rights, Jobs

July 27, 2015


Aggrey Mutambo

a reporter at the Daily Nation, the principal English-language newspaper in Kenya. He covered Obama’s visit for the paper.

Salim Lone

a Kenyan journalist, political adviser and former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. From 2005 to 2012, he was the spokesperson for then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya.

President Obama arrived Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for talks with leaders on counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab in Somalia, and human rights abuses and looming famine in neighboring South Sudan. His visit marks the first by a sitting U.S. president to Ethiopia, which is home to the African Union, and also to Kenya, his father’s birthplace. In a major speech Sunday in the capital of Nairobi, Obama referred to himself as a "Kenyan American" and joked about critics who said he was there to look for his birth certificate. We go to Nairobi for an update from Aggrey Mutambo, a reporter at the Daily Nation, the principal English-language newspaper in Kenya. He covered Obama’s visit for the paper. We are also joined by Salim Lone, a Kenyan journalist, political adviser and former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. From 2005 to 2012, he was the spokesperson for then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at President Obama’s visit to Africa. He arrived Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for talks with leaders on counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab in Somalia, and human rights abuses and looming famine in neighboring South Sudan. Obama’s visit marks the first by a sitting U.S. president to Ethiopia, which is home to the African Union. Later today, he’ll hold talks there with leaders of Kenya and Uganda. Not scheduled to attend the meetings is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the current chair of the African Union.

This comes as Obama has concluded his first visit to his father’s birthplace of Kenya since taking office. In a major speech Sunday in the capital, Nairobi, he referred to himself as a "Kenyan American" and included many details of his personal history in his speech, while urging the country to deal with issues ranging from corruption to sexism. Speaking to a packed stadium filled with nearly 5,000 cheering Kenyans, Obama emphasized a message of optimism to Kenyans, especially youth.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to the people of Kenya, particularly the youth, I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve. A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did and serve a foreign master. You don’t need to do what my father did and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the significance of President Obama’s Africa visit, we’re joined now by two guests. In Nairobi, Kenya, Aggrey Mutambo is with us, reporter at the Daily Nation, principal English-language newspaper in Kenya. He covered Obama’s visit for the paper. And via Democracy Now! video stream from Princeton, New Jersey, Salim Lone is a Kenyan journalist, political adviser and former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. From 2005 to ’12, he was a spokesperson for then-prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Nairobi, Kenya. Talk about the significance of the trip and the response of Kenyans, Aggrey Mutambo, if you can share what took place this weekend.

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Thank you for having me on the show. The visit by the president of the United States was very significant in two ways here. First of all, it involved an image-boosting scenario for Kenya, given the fact that there has been a lot of issues related to the security and whether it was proper for people to come to Nairobi and other parts of the country, where there has been a lot of terrorism incidents. Secondly, the president, when he came to Nairobi, he helped address some of the issues which have been raised here by the civil society, given—such as civil liberties, corruption and other issues, like press freedom. So, his coming here has been seen as one way of helping boost the voice of the civil society in expressing these issues, which have been a great concern to people. To the government side, of course, it has been used to show that Kenya is indeed safe and not a banana republic, as many people may have thought. That is according to the government’s side. So, it’s [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Aggrey, I wanted to go to—


AMY GOODMAN: —President Obama urging Kenyans to embrace gay rights.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing anybody, but because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen. And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. ...

So, I’m unequivocal on this. If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do, and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong. Full stop.

AMY GOODMAN: In responding to President Obama’s comments, the Kenyan president, Kenyatta, said the two countries share a lot in common, but not everything, called gay rights a, quote, "non-issue" for Kenyans.

PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: Just like President Obama, I think we also need to be able to speak frankly about some of these things. And the fact of the matter is that Kenya and the United States, we share so many values. Our common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families, these are things that we share. But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share, our culture, our societies don’t accept. It’s very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Aggrey Mutambo, can you elaborate on this interaction?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes. The president’s response indicates the kind of controversy associated with the issues of homosexuality here, mainly because many people see gay rights within the prism of morality, and mostly they borrow those virtues from religious scriptures. If you walk around in Nairobi, you will find that many people live according to the teachings of their religious scriptures—the Bible, the Qur’an, for example—so most of those people see that allowing gays to have the same freedoms as them is like going against the teachings of those religious scriptures.

But also, those religious organizations are very influential here in shaping the kind of politics that politicians may want to pursue. This was very evident, for example, during the formation of the current constitution, where the Catholic Church was very much opposed to the inclusion of those gay rights. The initial drafts had proposed that marriage not be defined within the lens of man and woman. But the church insisted that this had to be included. So, the fact that it was passed after the push by these religious organizations, which initially argued that the new constitution was going to allow these rights, shows that politicians are just answerable to what these organizations push for.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama—not all things were serious there—joking during his speech in Nairobi about questions about where he was born.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I suspect that some of my critics back home are suggesting that I’m back here to look for my birth certificate. That is not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking in Nairobi, Kenya. Salim Lone is also with us. He is a Kenyan journalist, political adviser, former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. Can you talk, Salim, about the significance of President Obama, the first sitting U.S. president’s trip to both Kenya and, as well, Ethiopia, as well as addressing the African Union, and what he is doing in these places?

SALIM LONE: Well, first of all, I just want to repeat what Aggrey said, that this was an incredible visit for Kenya—and for him. I think many people have said that they haven’t seen President Obama so happy for three consecutive days. I mean, he really loved being at home and talking to people, and he spoke very, very honestly on a number of urgent issues that Kenyans are trying to address.

At the same time, I think, sticking to Kenya for the moment, his trip there was a huge boost for President Uhuru Kenyatta. I think some of you might know that there are a number of issues that surrounded his legitimacy, first because of his trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity, which was dropped recently. In addition, the last election, which brought him to power, was, like the one before that, deeply disputed. And he was struggling with these issues, plus the issue of terrorism and the fact of Kenyan soldiers who are occupying a large swath of southern Somalia, which in turn has made Kenyans pay a very bloody price. That invasion was supposed to keep Kenya and Kenyans more secure, but in fact over 400 Kenyans have died since the invasion began, with virtually none having died before. So this is very good for Uhuru Kenyatta. But as I said, the president raised a number of issues about human rights, about suppression of democracy; whether it will influence Uhuru Kenyatta, we are not so sure.

But I think the second issue, which concerns the AU as a whole, Africa as a whole and, of course, Kenya itself, which has been a victim of terrorism since 1998—as you’ll recall, that was the greatest terrorist attack, the most number of people killed, over 200 people, when the Kenya—the U.S. Embassy in Kenya was attacked. And we are doing in East Africa, in fighting the al-Shabab, what the world has been doing in fighting terrorism generally, meaning using primarily force and, in the process, seeing terrorism get much, much worse everywhere. You know, they used to be small, hidden cells of terrorists, and now they control large swaths of countries. And that’s exactly what’s happening in East Africa, too, that we are—we’ve invaded Kenya—I mean, we’ve invaded Somalia, for our own political reasons. Obviously, it is not improving security in Kenya. And that’s an issue that President Obama, unfortunately, came out on the wrong side, supporting the invasion of Somalia, continuing the drone strikes, and this is a problem. We need to tackle the scourge of terrorism. It is the greatest scourge that humanity faces at the moment, apart from wars, of course, unlawful wars in particular. But to tackle this scourge, we must do it right, and not do it in ways which are actually making it a much more relevant factor in our daily lives. Kenyans are really suffering from this insecurity.

AMY GOODMAN: Aggrey Mutambo in Nairobi, can you talk about Kenyans’ perception of the impact of the counterterrorism efforts?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Of course, the fight against terrorism here has elicited a lot of debate, because when the police go hunting for those suspects, it has always come out within the lines of human rights violations. Reports have been published by Amnesty International, for example, accusing the police of harassing people suspected to be terror suspects. Some people have disappeared mysteriously. So, it is the same reason that human rights organizations here have said—had urged President Obama to tell the Kenyan authorities that fighting terrorism should not go with diluting people’s rights. So, it is true that people perceive terrorism as having a very big economic impact here. We have had a lot of lives lost, for example, property destroyed. But again, there are other voices which are saying that the counterterrorism measures being adopted by the government here are, in fact, adding salt to the wound.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking about the issue of counterterrorism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On security, the United States and Kenya are already strong partners, and today we reaffirm that we stand united in the face of terrorism. Earlier, I had the opportunity to meet with survivors and families of victims of the bombing of our U.S. Embassy in 1998. In the face of despicable violence, such as the attack on Garissa University College and the Westgate Mall, the Kenyan people have shown incredible resolve and remarkable resilience.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in Nairobi. Aggrey Mutambo, were you at these attacks, either at Westgate or at the University of Garissa?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes, I was there. I covered both the Westgate attack and the Garissa University attack. And what came out at that time was the confusion, maybe, from the authorities here in the way they were responding. Of course, President Kenyatta has argued that the issue of terror is a new phenomenon, and the way they react to it has had a lot of problems. But at Westgate and Garissa, perhaps, my observation is if there had been an earlier response, many people’s lives may have been saved.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Obama visited family there, right? His step-grandmother, his half-sister. Can you talk about the significance of this? He had an extended family dinner?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes. There had been hope that he would go to the village where his father was born, but I think he was trying to compensate for the fact that he couldn’t go to the village, so he met here with some of the relatives from his extended family. And they shared local delicacies here, which is partly traditional here. Whenever a guest comes, people do share those kind of delicacies to show the significance of that guest. So, I think the president was just trying to live within the traditions of his father.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Salim Lone, now President Obama is in Addis Ababa. He’s in Ethiopia. How Ethiopia fits into this picture?

SALIM LONE: Well, Ethiopia is an economic dynamo and has enabled even Kenya to do better because of its own growth. I think the problem in Ethiopia has been the lack of democracy there. But at the same time, I think all of us recognize that you live in a world that you have, and you cannot keep on hoping for a better world, so you struggle and you struggle. But Ethiopia, apart from some terror bandits in Somalia, for example, when it invaded and destroyed a very moderate Islamic Courts Union, which seemed to be bringing peace to Somalia, in 2006, with U.S. help, of course. So Ethiopia is the head of the—you know, it’s the seat of the African Union and a very, very important player, the second-largest population in Africa. So it’s a tough call for Obama, knowing what he’s trying to do in the U.S., making major changes in so many U.S. policies, and yet, on this issue of terrorism, I think he has not got the right message. Basically, he—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

SALIM LONE: —and the U.S. don’t have a vision of the world. I mean, that’s one of the greatest problems we have in the world at the moment. It’s that the West, especially U.S., has no vision for how to address these awful problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, we’re going to have to leave it there, Kenyan journalist, as well as Aggrey Mutambo, speaking to us from Nairobi.

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