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 bluntly 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. Thick crowds lined the roadways to watch the presidential motorcade speed through the city Sunday, some climbing on rooftops to get a better view. 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 battered Volkswagen his sister drove. Meeting his brothers for the first time. The airport employee who recognized his last name.
“That was the first time that my name meant something,” he said.
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.”
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. The terrorist threat was made clear anew Sunday when al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bombing at a luxury hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, that killed eight people and shattered a period of calm in the city.