Obama ends Kenya visit with tough message on rights, corruption

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Nairobi (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Sunday ended a landmark visit to Kenya, urging the east African nation and birthplace of his father to renounce corruption, tribalism and inequality.

Speaking to a raucous crowd in an indoor arena in the capital Nairobi, Obama said Kenya needed to ditch "bad traditions" including endemic bribe-taking, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and communal violence.

"Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with enormous peril but also enormous promise," he said in a rousing live address to the nation.

Seeking to leverage his status as a "son of the soil" and his huge local popularity, Obama said his ancestral homeland faced "tough choices" ahead, urging Kenyans to end the "bad tradition" of failing to empower women, while warning that "a politics based only on tribe and ethnicity is a politics doomed to tear a country apart."

"Treating women as second-class citizens... those are bad traditions, they need to change, they are holding you back," he said.

"Corruption is not unique to Kenya, but the fact is too often corruption is tolerated because that's how things have always been done," he said. "Just because something is a part of your past doesn't make it right."

Throughout his two-day trip, Obama has tried to bridge two constituencies: Americans reexamining their stereotypes of Africa, and Africans hoping for a better future.

But the friendly, aspirational message belies a hard-nosed security need.

A young but impoverished population could be fertile ground for instability and the growth of groups like Somalia's Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab -- who have also been at the top of the list of security concerns surrounding Obama's stay.

There were no reported security incidents during the visit, although as the presidential jet Air Force One took off from Kenya and headed to Ethiopia, a major bomb blast -- most likely carried out by the Shebab -- hit a hotel in Somalia's capital Mogadishu.

The target was a heavily guarded building housing diplomatic missions and frequented by government officials and international workers.

The visit has seen the United States increase its trade ties and security assistance to Kenya, with Obama also urging the country to respect its Muslim minority.

The Kasarani stadium complex where Obama delivered the speech was used to hold hundreds of ethnic Somalis during controversial mass arrests following the 2013 Somali-led Shebab assault on the Westgate shopping mall in central Nairobi that killed 67.

- 'Homecoming' -

Obama then met members of Kenya's vibrant civil society -- bearing the brunt of what they say are increased restrictions as Kenya fights a "war on terror" -- as well as opposition politicians.

Obama's visit to Kenya had been delayed while President Uhuru Kenyatta faced charges of crimes against humanity for his role in post-election violence seven years ago.

The International Criminal Court has since dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence and accusing Kenya of bribing or intimidating witnesses, although the trial of deputy president William Ruto continues.

On Saturday, Obama stressed the importance of protecting basic rights, comparing homophobia in Africa to racial discrimination he had encountered in the United States.

"As an African-American in the United States I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law. I am unequivocal on this," Obama said, openly disagreeing with Kenyatta.

Homophobia is on the rise in Africa and espousing evangelical Christian values is a major vote-winner in many countries.

Kenyatta replied by repeating the view that gay rights were unacceptable to Kenyans and therefore "a non-issue".

Compounding the "homecoming" atmosphere of the visit, Obama recalled details of pre-presidential trips to Kenya replete with the stuff of everyday life: broken down cars, traditional foods, lost luggage and reconnecting with his family. The president, however, joked that he wasn't in the country "to look for my birth certificate".

Barack Obama Sr was a pipe-smoking economist who walked out when Obama was just two and died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982, aged 46.

Obama promised to be back when his presidency ends, telling leading Kenyan broadcaster Capital FM that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, a safari in the Masai Mara and a beach holiday in Lamu were all on his bucket list.

"Climbing Kilimanjaro seems like something that should be on my list of things to do once I get out of here. The Secret Service generally doesn't like me climbing mountains, but as a private citizen hopefully I can get away with something like that," he said.

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