Declaring Kenya at a "crossroads" between promise and peril, President Barack Obama on Sunday 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, Obama traced the arc of the country's evolution from colonialism to independence, as well as his own family's history here. Today, 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," Obama told the crowd of 4,500 packed into a sports arena in the capital of Nairobi. But he warned that Kenya must make "tough choices" to bolster its fragile democracy and fast-growing economy.
Obama's visit here, his first as president, captivated a country that views him as a local son. The audience inside the arena chanted his name as he finished his remarks.
The president left Kenya Sunday afternoon, pausing longer than normal atop the stairs to Air Force One to wave to the crowd, a huge grin on his face. He arrived two hours later in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he met with diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in the evening.
Obama has written emotionally about his first visit to Kenya as a young man nearly 30 years ago, and he recounted many of those same memories in his remarks Sunday.
The president barely knew his father, who died in 1982 after leaving the U.S. to return to Kenya. However, Obama has numerous family members in the country, including his half-sister Auma Obama, who introduced her brother Sunday.
"He's one of us," she said. "But we're happy to share him with the world."
The bulk of Obama's address was a candid commentary on the East African nation's future. He spent considerable time warning 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."
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 marginalizing half of a country's population is "stupid." He called for an end to forced marriages for girls who should otherwise be attending school and genital mutilation.
"These traditions may date back centuries. They have no place in the 21st century," he said.
The president drew on the recent debate in the U.S. over the Confederate battle flag, a Civil War-era relic that is seen by many as a racist symbol. The killing of nine people at a black church in South Carolina last month prompted a fresh debate over the flag, spurring some states to remove it from government grounds.
"Just because something is a part of your past doesn't make it right," Obama said.
Obama is expected to offer similar messages about good governance and human rights during his two days of meetings with leaders in Ethiopia. Human rights groups have criticized the president for visiting the Horn of Africa nation, which is accused of cracking down on dissent, sometimes violently.
Obama planned meetings with Ethiopia's president and prime minister, and a separate session with regional leaders to discuss the situation in South Sudan, a young nation gripped by turmoil since civil war broke out in December 2013.
Countering the al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia also is on the agenda for Obama's meetings with Ethiopian leaders. That threat was brought into sharp relief Sunday when Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bombing at a luxury hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, that killed at least 10 people and shattered a period of calm in the city.
The Associated Press