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Barack Obama announces big support for Kenya, wades into controversial gay rights

By Alphonce Shiundu | Published Sun, July 26th 2015 at 00:00, Updated July 25th 2015 at 22:57 GMT +3

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Cabinet Saturday hosted US President Barack Obama for two-hour bilateral talks at which they sealed deals on business, affordable energy, counter-terrorism, anti-corruption, infrastructure, visas, wildlife conservation, health and agriculture, but they failed to agree about two issues: Gay rights and travel advisories.

The two Heads of State shared identical lecterns with the writing 'Republic of Kenya' as they told the world about their secret talks, their dreams, and those of their respective countries for what they believe will lead to "shared prosperity".

But while Obama said he stood for gay rights because these are human rights, Kenyatta said he was unwilling to "impose" foreign values on a society that is not ready to accept.

With Kenyatta to his left, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto right in front of him — with the rest of the Cabinet Secretaries, a handful of principal secretaries, the Attorney General Githu Muigai and Majority Leader Aden Duale — Obama reminded the government that freedom of the media and the civil society were key for development and democracy.

"I am unequivocal on this. If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, doing their job, and obeying the traffic signs, doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do and not harming anybody, the idea that they will be treated differently because of who they love is wrong. Fullstop!" said Obama.

He said the State had no business imposing "religious doctrines on people" but has to treat everyone equally.

But his host, President Kenyatta, said while Kenya and the US "share values...there are some things that we don't share!"

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"Our culture and society don't accept. It is very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue," said Kenyatta.

The Deputy President and the Majority Leader have both rejected the call for gay rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and Kenya's Constitution outlaws gay marriages.

The US President said he was unlikely to "meddle" to deal with the travel advisories that his government has slapped on Kenya because those are based on intelligence reports and the assessment of the State Department on the safety of US citizens all over the world.

Obama, who is in the country for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, promised five-year visas for students and businessmen; he said Kenya and the US were working to deliver direct flights between the two countries "soon"; and through Power Africa Initiative, to give rural communities affordable electricity.

The US President's message to President Kenyatta's Cabinet, the people who pushed through repressive provisions under the Security Laws (Amendment) Act that had to be struck out by the courts, was a call that they should not curtail civil liberties under the guise of fighting terror.

"Kenya has a determined, active and feisty press as we see here today. A free press can make a nation stronger and more successful and makes us leaders more effective because it demands regular accountability," said Obama.

The US President said he was eager to meet Kenya's civil society this morning because of their role in "standing up for the dignity of all Kenyans.

He said the Kenya government should not victimize civil societies that work with communities in combating terror and ending radicalization — a direct reference to the harassment that had befallen the two non-governmental organisations of Muhuri and Haki Africa, whose accounts were frozen, their donors asked to cut funding and the government threat of their deregistration.

"Not only is that practical advice, but it is the right thing to do and is consistent with the Kenya Constitution," said Obama.

Kenyatta agreed that Kenya was "learning" in the fight against terror and promised that the country will take on board the best practices in counter-terrorism.

"We are deepening our democracy, fighting global terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life. Left undefeated they will redraw the international system and make room for violent extremism and tyranny," said Kenyatta.

Kenyatta said they had an "excellent afternoon" with "frank" talks that assured a "true spirit of partnership" between Kenya and the United States. Kenyatta banked on US entrepreneurs to flock Kenya to boost growth.

For Obama, whose first words at the 58-minute news conference were 'Habari' — a Kiswahili greeting — the priority was in defeating terrorism, boosting business, entrenching freedoms and respecting the rights.

He lauded President Kenyatta's anti-corruption crusade as a "right idea", promised "technical support" to the bodies in the anti-graft campaign and called for "visible prosecutions" of the perpetrators.

"People are not stupid," the US leader said, as he warned that lifestyle changes that are not commensurate with the pay packets of civil servants and their families are clear evidence of malfeasance that even the public can tell.

"They don't have to be forensic accountants to know what is going on," said Obama.

He added: "If Kenya can put in place the habits and institutions of good governance, they can help unleash greater growth for the Kenyan people and that will be good for everybody," said Obama.

It was an afternoon that was coloured with the prickly handshake between the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, who is standing trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

President Obama arrived at State House shortly after 2pm. He got a 21-gun salute and guard of honour mounted by the Kenya Defence Forces, the men fighting the Al Shabaab terrorists in Somalia. But that regal arrival and reception was shortly followed by a brief handshake between the leader of the US and Kenya's Deputy President. It was always going to be a big question: will the two meet? Will that meeting be public? And what would it mean for the leader of the free world shaking hands with a suspect of crimes against humanity?

Well, those questions will not be answered because Obama was there to meet the Kenya Government, and as President Kenyatta and United States official Susan Rice said, Ruto had to be in that meeting.

For journalists though, they had to contend with being locked out until after Obama had arrived and entered State House. Those who had made it in before the gates were ordered closed were all ordered out of the parade grounds. Obama's motorcade was escorted to the venue by two helicopters and police outriders.

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