President Barack Obama gave Africa a lecture on obstacles of corruption, tribalism and gender discrimination holding back the continent in the midst of a visit celebrating the region’s emerging economic dynamism.
Obama delivered the message at an indoor arena filled with thousands of young people Sunday in Kenya, the ancestral homeland of his father. The setting underscored the U.S. president’s personal ties to the continent, as did an introduction by his Kenyan-born half-sister, Auma Obama, who told the audience, “He’s one of us.”
Obama framed his remarks within Kenya’s “arc of progress” from colony to independent nation, isolation to international engagement and from internecine violence to orderly society.
“I’m here as a friend who wants Kenya to succeed,” the U.S. president told his audience at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi. “There’s much to be proud of,” he said of the country’s growth as a democracy and economic powerhouse, “but we also know the progress is not complete.”
The address provided Obama a platform to address Kenya’s public and particularly its youth on the country’s potential. Many of those in the audience were students and thousands of young people lined the motorcade route on his way to the site.
The U.S. president has stressed the opportunities available through private enterprise in a visit to East Africa that also includes a stop in Ethiopia. The trip began with an entrepreneurship summit in Kenya to highlight the nation’s status as a technology and startup hub in Africa.
Kenya’s economy grew 5.3 percent last year and is forecast to strengthen to 6.9 percent growth this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Steve Case, co-founder of America Online and chief executive officer of the venture capital firm Revolution LLC, who attended the entrepreneurship summit, said Nairobi now has a “vibrant startup community” and anticipates several companies will go public with valuations in the billions of dollars in the next few years. Case said he has invested “millions” of dollars in a “handful” of Kenyan companies.
Anchor to Progress
Kenya’s economic progress nonetheless is being held back by an endemic culture of bribe-taking, as is development of other countries in the region, Obama said.
Kenya ranked 145th out of 174 countries last year in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
“It’s an anchor that weighs you down,” Obama said. “If you need to pay a bribe and hire somebody’s brother” to start a company “that’s going to create less jobs for everybody.”
The president also admonished Africans to set aside traditional limits on the education of girls and aspirations of women, saying they undermine competitiveness in a global economy.
“Those are bad traditions, they need to change,” Obama said. “They’re holding you back.”
Obama met privately after the speech with some of Kenya’s political opposition and hosted a town hall meeting where he heard from elephant conservationists, Muslims and a 16-year-old girl who made an impression on Obama when she said her schooling had opened her mind to possibilities she had never before imagined.
Obama returned to the homeland of his father on his fourth -- and aides say likely final -- visit to Africa as president.
His journey to Kenya as a young man was a critical part of the personal struggle with his mixed-race identity that Obama described in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” That life story later became a centerpiece of his introduction to the American public and his rise to political prominence.
His Nairobi address juxtaposed the transformation of Kenya’s economy since that first visit in 1987 with the changed circumstances of his own life.
In her introduction, his sister Auma recalled picking up Obama at the airport on his first trip in a battered Volkswagen Beetle that broke down several times during his visit. This time, the president gave her a ride into Nairobi in his armored limousine.
Obama told the audience the airline lost his luggage when he first came to meet his father’s family. “That doesn’t happen on Air Force One,” he said.