Human rights, trade and security top agenda as Obama arrives in Kenya

AFP/Saul Loeb

US President Barack Obama arrived in Kenya on Friday on a weekend visit that will include talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta focused on trade and investment, counter-terrorism, and democracy and human rights issues.


Obama is in the country officially to address the 6th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which Kenya is hosting this year. The United States hosted the first such summit in Washington, DC, in 2010.

Parts of the capital Nairobi are in lockdown and its airspace closed from the US president's arrival late on Friday until his departure on Sunday, when he will travel to neighbouring Ethiopia for meetings and a speech at the African Union's headquarters in Addis Ababa.

At least 10,000 police officers  ̶   roughly one-quarter of Kenya's entire national force  ̶   will be deployed in the capital during Obama's visit.

Security concerns arose this week when it emerged that Kenyan Airlines published details of the president’s arrival and departure schedules among its staff and on Facebook. The administration said, however, that the Secret Service was aware of the leak and that it had not affected the president's travel plans.

A series of deals are set to be signed on Friday in the hours before Obama arrives, including agreements on infrastructure and investments in healthcare. Boosting bilateral trade and investment will be a key focus of more talks on Saturday, with the US now Kenya's second-biggest trading partner after the European Union.

But Kenya's reputation for widespread corruption remains a key US concern, with Transparency International ranking Kenya at 145 of the 175 nations on its global corruption index.

Divide over gay rights

Democracy and civil society issues will also be on the agenda, with US officials saying that human rights and the rule of law will be a focus of some of the talks.

Obama's support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the United States has dismayed some Kenyans as well as many in the rest of Africa, which often takes a hostile view of the issue. Obama voiced his support for gay rights in Senegal during his 2013 Africa tour, prompting both President Kenyatta and Kenyan Vice President William Ruto to criticise Obama's remarks.

Kenyatta has said that gay rights in Kenya is a "non-issue ... and it is definitely not on our agenda at all".

Vice President Ruto told a church service on July 5 that, “Homosexuality is against the plan of God.”

"We have heard that in the US they have allowed gay relations and other dirty things. I want to say as a Christian leader that we will defend our country Kenya, we will stand for our faith and our country," he said.

But for the US administration, gay rights remains a human rights issue.

In an interview with the BBC on Thursday before leaving for Africa, Obama was asked about Ruto's comments. "I disagree with him on that," Obama said, adding that "everybody deserves fair treatment, equal treatment in the eyes of the law and the state. And that includes gays, lesbians, transgender persons."

"I am not a fan of discrimination and bullying of anybody on the basis of race, on the basis of religion, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender," Obama said.

Countering al Shabaab

Security and counter-terrorism will also be central to the talks with Obama, Kenyatta has said, adding that Nairobi is "working in very close cooperation with American agencies" to combat the threat of violent extremism, especially from al Shabaab. The Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate launched a 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall that left 67 people dead.

Islamist extremism in Kenya has been a US concern since al Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998.

Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in 2011 to fight al Shabaab and later joined an African Union force, AMISOM, which is supporting Somalia's internationally backed government and aims to "reduce the threat posed by Al Shabaab and other armed opposition groups".

But al Shabaab has since stepped up its operations in Kenya, undermining AMISOM’s plans to serve as a buffer and monitor the long, porous border with Somalia.

US drone strikes have targeted al Shabaab commanders, including a former leader who was killed in September and another key figure in March who had suspected links to the Westgate siege.

Kenya placed two high-profile Muslim rights groups on its list of organisations accused of supporting terrorism following an al Shabaab massacre of 148 people at a Garissa university campus in April.

Obama is expected to meet with representatives of both Muslim organisations during his visit.

The long shadow of the ICC

Kenyan authorities have said that Obama will also meet with Vice President Ruto, who went on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2013 for crimes against humanity. Ruto faced charges of murder, forced deportation and persecution for allegedly helping orchestrate mass riots that left more than 1,200 people dead and 600,000 displaced following a disputed 2007 presidential election.

But US officials said this week that Obama does not have plans to meet with Ruto one on one.

"I don’t think he has any plans for any separate engagements with him. He is a member of the government, so I imagine that he may be present at some of the events," National Security Advisor Susan Rice said at a White House briefing on Wednesday.

Ruto’s case was suspended last year  ̶   in part, prosecutors say, because witnesses were bribed, intimidated or killed. At least seven witnesses for the prosecution have withdrawn from the case.

The 2007 poll that returned then president Mwai Kibaki to power was disputed by opposition leader Raila Odinga following accusations of vote-rigging, claims that were confirmed by Western election observers. The violence ignited the country’s ethnic tensions and was mainly directed at members of Kenya's largest Kikuyu tribe, who were perceived to be Kibaki supporters. Attacks and reprisals saw homes torched, people hacked or beaten to death, and some parts of the country brought to the brink of civil war.

No prosecutions have yet been brought against any of the suspected perpetrators, an issue that is likely to be raised on Obama’s visit. And many Kenyans are still suffering the after effects of the violence. “Many of the displaced have yet to be resettled or compensated, many of the injured or the families of those killed have yet to receive reparation to help rebuild their shattered lives and most of the perpetrators have yet to face justice,” Amnesty International said in a report last year.

Kenyatta's own trial at the ICC was dropped in December. As the first sitting head of state ever to appear before the court, he faced five charges including murder, rape and forced deportation for allegedly helping to mastermind the post-election violence.

Asked whether Obama's Kenya visit had been postponed until the ICC charges against Kenyatta were dropped, Rice said that the trip was timed so that Obama could address the entrepreneurship summit.

This is Obama's third visit to Africa since becoming president, although he skipped a stop in Kenya, his father's homeland, on a 2013 visit to Africa that included Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. He also paid a brief visit to Ghana in 2009.

The White House has said that Obama will have some private time to spend with family members in Kenya, and some of his relatives may attend some of the public events held in his honour.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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