Obama urges young Kenyans to shape their future

NAIROBI - Billing himself as the United States' first Kenyan-American president, Barack Obama called Sunday on citizens of his paternal homeland to cast aside "bad traditions" and forge a more just future.

Seeking to leverage his popularity and status as a "son of the soil", Obama said: "Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril, but also enormous promise." But, he told a raucous Nairobi arena, "the future of Africa is up to Africans".

"For too long I think that many looked to the outside for salvation and focused on somebody else being at fault for the problems of the continent," he said.

Playing the role of brother and well-wishing friend, Obama said oppression of women, violent extremism, ethnic tensions and the "cancer" of corruption were key issues to be addressed.

"We can see that future for Kenya on the horizon, but tough choices are going to have to be made," he said.

His bluntest criticism was directed at the ill treatment of women and girls.

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

"There is no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence, there is no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation, there is no place in civilised society for the early or forced marriage of children." "These traditions may date back centuries, they have no place in the 21st century." Addressing corruption, he said that too often "corruption is tolerated because that's how things have always been done." "Ordinary people have to stand up and say enough is enough."

- 'He gets us' -

Much of Obama's speech stressed his affinity with young Kenyans, a vital group in a country where 60 percent of the population is aged under 24.

"He gets us," said his half-sister Auma, introducing a man she described as "my brother, your brother, our son." Reinforcing that message, Obama recalled details of pre-presidential trips to Kenya replete with the stuff of everyday life: broken down cars, traditional foods and an airline losing his luggage.

"That doesn't happen on Air Force One," he joked.

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 aspirational message for the continent belies a hard-nosed security need.

A young but impoverished population could be fertile ground for instability and the growth of groups like Somalia-based Al-Shebab.

The Al-Qaeda-linked group has hit a series of targets in Kenya, including the Westgate mall in Nairobi and Garrisa University, killing scores.

Obama also called for a sense of national unity that casts ethnic differences aside.

In 2007 and 2008, election-fuelled clashes between rival ethnic groups killed more than 1,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands more from their homes.

Kenya's deputy president William Ruto still faces crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court over the violence.

"A politics that's based on only tribe and ethnicity is doomed to tear a country apart," Obama said.