President Barack Obama was on Thursday at pains to explain why he is visiting Kenya when Deputy President William Ruto is still facing crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In an interview with BBC’s North America Editor Jon Sopel before he left Washington for Nairobi, President Obama, however, said the situation gives him the opportunity to push the human rights agenda in the country.
“You’re going to Kenya, where the International Criminal Court is still investigating certain members of the government, which seems kind of hardly ideal institutions,” Mr Sopel said but without referring to Mr Ruto by name.
In his response, President Obama said: “Well, they’re not ideal institutions. But what we found is when we combine blunt talk with engagement, it gives us the best opportunity to influence and open up space for civil society and the human rights agenda that we think is so important.”
Mr Obama also defended the tour, in spite of the threat of terror attacks linked to Al-Shabaab, saying his visit would strengthen the war against terrorism in the region.
Citing the attacks on the Garissa University College in April and the Westgate Mall in September 2013, Mr Sopel wondered why Mr Obama still chose to visit Kenya when the Secret Service could have suggested other destinations.
“I think it is important first of all that the president of the United States underscores our commitment to partnering with countries around the world, even though we’re not intimidated by terrorist organisations. Second, the counter-terrorism co-operation between the United States and Kenya, Uganda and other countries in East Africa is very strong,” noted Mr Obama.
President Obama, prior to Kenya’s 2013 General Election, had said he would not have contact with anyone accused at the ICC, the same stand taken by other western powers.
He said the visit would also give him the opportunity to talk to the African Union leaders.
President Obama was adamant he would address the subject of gay, lesbian and transgender rights during his visit, despite opposition from Mr Ruto, who maintains the government would not allow gay relations in the country.
“I disagree with him on that, don’t I? And I’ve had this experience before when we visited Senegal in my last trip to Africa. I think President Sall is doing a wonderful job in moving the country forward — a strong democrat,” said President Obama.
“But in a press conference, I was very blunt about my belief everybody deserves fair treatment, equal treatment in the eyes of the law and the state. And that includes gays, lesbians, trans-gender persons. I am 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,” he added.
“And I think that this is actually part and parcel of the agenda and that is how we are treating women and girls.”
President Obama expressed his disagreement with Mr Ruto’s stand on gay rights. “We have heard that in the US they have allowed homosexuality and other dirty things…,” Sopel read Mr Ruto’s statement.
President Obama quickly interjected as Sopel was finishing the sentence saying: “Well, I disagree with him.”
The US leader arrived in Kenya on Friday night and will address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Gigiri in Nairobi on Saturday.