President Barack Obama, has launched an unprecedented defence of gay rights in Africa, telling Kenya’s president that the state has no right to punish people because of “who they love”.
Obama, visiting his late father’s homeland for the first time as US president, confronted Uhuru Kenyatta and millions of Kenyans watching on television with his “unequivocal” views. Homosexual acts are illegal in Kenya and surveys show nine in 10 people find them unacceptable.
Obama personalised the issue by comparing homophobia to racial discrimination that he had encountered in the United States. Never before has such a powerful foreign leader challenged Africans so directly on their own soil.
“I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this,” he said, during a joint press conference at the state house in Nairobi. “When you start treating people differently, because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode. And bad things happen.
“When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law, and there were all sorts of rationalisations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong. So I’m unequivocal on this.”
There had been speculation that Obama would duck the issue and focus on security and trade with Kenya. But in line with his recently emboldened actions and statements on a number of topics, he pulled no punches as Kenyatta looked on in silence.
He added that for “a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working at a job and obeying the traffic signs and not harming anybody, the idea they will be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong, full stop.”
The Kenyan president publicly disagreed with Obama. “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share,” Kenyatta said, insisting that gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans”.
He added: “It’s very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”
There was a ripple of applause from people in the state house audience. Africa has been described as the world’s most homophobic continent with same-sex relations illegal in 36 of 54 countries and punishable by death in a handful.
Obama also had firm words for Kenya on corruption, describing it as “the single biggest impediment to Kenya growing even faster”, and saying people were being “consistently sapped by corruption at a high level and at a low level.”
Obama’s comments were swiftly criticised by Irungu Kang’ata, an MP in Kenyatta’s governing party. “They are in bad taste,” he said. “It’s a breach of the principle of sovereignty and equality of states. What if Kenyatta goes to America and says it should abolish the death penalty? Or for example it is like Obama goes to London or Madrid or The Hague or even Japan and says your monarchy is oppressive and a waste of money and should be done away with. In the same manner he can’t come to Kenya to tell us things that are unacceptable.”