Obama in Kenya for security, human rights talks

Obama in Kenya for security, human rights talks
PHOTO: Reuters

NAIROBI - US President Barack Obama is to hold talks in Kenya Saturday on trade and investment, counter-terrorism and human rights, in his first visit to the country of his father's birth since his election as president.

A massive security operation was under way in Nairobi, with parts of the usually traffic-clogged capital locked down and airspace also closed for the president's landing late Friday and his scheduled departure late Sunday for neighbouring Ethiopia.

Top of the list of security concerns is Somalia's Al-Qaeda-affiliate, the Shebab, who have staged a string of suicide attacks, massacres and bombings on Kenyan soil, including an attack on a university in April which killed 147 students.

Two years ago the siege of the Westgate shopping mall in the heart of the capital by Shebab left 67 dead.

Obama was greeted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as he stepped off Air Force One. The president's half-sister Auma was also on the tarmac to welcome him and travel in the bomb-proof presidential limousine, nicknamed 'The Beast', for the drive to the hotel in the city centre, where Obama dined with members of his extended Kenyan family.

Excitement has been building in Kenya for weeks, with the visit seen as a major boost for the east African nation's position as a regional hub - something that has taken a battering in recent years due to Shebab attacks and political violence that landed Kenyan leaders in the International Criminal Court.

The visit is also the first ever to Kenya by a sitting US president, and at least 10,000 police officers, roughly a quarter of the entire national force, have also been deployed to the capital.

Obama's first official engagement in Nairobi is an address to an international business summit on Saturday, an event the US embassy itself warned could be "a target for terrorists".

Counter-terrorism will then be a key topic for discussion in bilateral talks with Kenyatta. Nairobi was the scene of one of Al-Qaeda's twin 1998 US embassy bombings, and Kenya is now the target of frequent Shebab attacks, while the country's Muslim-majority regions are facing a major recruitment drive by the Islamists.

The United States is a key security partner for Kenya, which has troops in Somalia as part of the African Union force, and US drones frequently target Shebab fighters - killing the group's previous leader last year.

Human rights, democracy concerns

A presidential visit to Kenya had been put on hold while Kenyatta faced charges of crimes against humanity for his role in 2007-2008 post-election violence. The ICC has since dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence and accusing Kenya of bribing or intimidating witnesses.

Kenyatta, however, has signalled that his controversial Deputy President William Ruto, still on trial at the ICC and outspokenly homophobic - having describing gays as "dirty" - would be present when government officials meet Obama.

Ruto was conspicuous in his absence from the greeting party at the airport. Obama is also travelling without the First Lady.

Asked earlier this week whether gay rights would be discussed, Kenyatta insisted it was "a non-issue", but Obama, in an interview with the BBC just ahead of the visit, said he was "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", and that this would be "part and parcel of the agenda".

On Sunday Obama will meet with members of Kenya's civil society, who have complained of growing restrictions in the country.

He is not scheduled to visit his father's grave in the village of Kogelo in western Kenya, and bemoaned the heavy security restrictions earlier this month.

"I will be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president, because I can actually get outside of the hotel room or a conference centre," Obama said.

Obama is linked to his Kenyan family via his father Barack senior, a pipe-smoking economist who Obama has admitted he "never truly" knew. He walked out when Obama was just two and died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982, aged 46.

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