These are some of the questions Kenyan journalists asked the president of United States of America on 25th July, 2015 at State House, Nairobi.
Question and Answer Session with the media
Mr. Jeff Mason: Mr. President I would like to ask two questions. First of all, what more specifically can the US do to help Kenya in the fight against Al Shabaab? Do you still Somalia as a counter terrorism model? Are you concerned about the Kenyan authorities using counter terrorism as an excuse to commit human rights violations?
Secondly, can you comment on the treatment of gay and lesbians in Kenya which rights groups have called dismal and President Kenyatta has called it a non-issue?
For Mr. Kenyatta, what more do you need the United States to help fight Al Shabaab and are you getting it?
Can you also respond to the issue about gay rights in your country?
President Barack Obama: Well, this was an extensive topic and conversation and the concrete action we are now taking. There has been extensive and effective counter terrorism cooperation between the United States and Kenya dealing with primarily threats from Al Shabaab. IN part because the actions that we have taken not just with Kenya but with Africa and the efforts collectively of countries to work together; Uganda, Ethiopia and others. We have systematically reduced the territory that Al Shabaab controls. We have been able to decrease their effective control within Somalia and have weakened those networks operating here in East Africa.
That does not mean that the problem has been solved. As is true around the world, what we find is that we can degrade significantly the capacities of these terrorist organizations, but they can still do damage. The number of individuals involved in Garissa or Westgate Mall were not large, but when they are willing to target soft targets and civilians and are prepared to die, they can still do a lot of damage. So, what we discussed was the importance of, first continuing the effort to root out Al Shabaab’s capacity inside of Somalia; working jointly. As we speak, Kenya is working with Ethiopia, the United States and others to further degrade Al Shabaab’s space in Somalia. So, we are to keep that pressure growing even as we are strengthening the Somalian Government, because part of the reason Al Shabaab was able to emerge as a significant threat to the region was a non-functioning government has been in Somali for so long. There is now a Government and a cabinet that is credible and is working with the international community in Mogadishu.
Even as we put military pressure on Al Shabaab, we also have to make sure that we are standing up an effective governing structure inside of Somali and we have made progress there. In addition, we have to continue to make progress in intelligence sharing and being able to identify threats before they occur here in Kenya and elsewhere in the region. Part of our announcement today involves additional funding and assistance that we are providing the Kenyan security forces to deal with this very kind of terrorism threats as well as additional training and assistance to make sure that the approach that is taken in rooting out potential terrorist threats do not create more problems than they solve.
What we have found through hard experience – I have shared this with President Kenyatta – is that if you paint any particular community with too blooded brush; if in reaction to terrorism you are restricting legitimate organizations, reducing the scope of peaceful organization, then there can have the advertent effect of actually increasing the pool of recruits for terrorism and resentment in communities that feel marginalized. I shared with him that one of the strengths in the United States, is part of the reason why although we are seeing potential long attacks inside the United States, but we have not seen the sort of systematic networks and cells developing in many of our Muslim communities inside of United States. We have been very conscious to make sure that law enforcement is reaching out and co-operating and working with them because they are partners in this process. The only way that we are going to fight the poison that is being feed to their young people through social media is to make sure that they are our eyes and our ears and they are counselling us on how we can more effectively built trust and increase cooperation. That has proven successful. The same will be true here in Kenya. I was very clear to President Kenyatta that ultimately the Kenyan Government is accountable to the Kenyan people and it will find its way through this process in cooperation with them. But our experience and best practices tell us that the rule of law, respecting the civil society or embracing the civil society particularly in those societies that are targeted for recruitment by organizations like the Al Shabaab. Not only that is practical advice but it is the right thing to do and it is consistent with the Kenyan Constitution and with the values that you heard President |Kenyatta espouse.
Similarly with respect to the rights of gays and lesbians, I have been consistent all across Africa on this. I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the State should not discriminate against the people based on their sexual orientation. I say that recognising that there may be people who have different religious or cultural beliefs but the issue is, how does the State operate relative to people?
If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently not because of the harm that they are doing to anybody but because they are different, that is the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen. When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. As an African American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently under the law. There were all sorts of rationalizations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and they were wrong.
I am unequivocal on this; if somebody is a law abiding citizen who is going about their business, going to their job and obeying the traffic signs and doing the other things that good citizens are supposed to do and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong.
The State does not need to weigh in on religious doctrine; the State has to treat everybody equally under the law and then everybody else can have their opinions.
Mr. Jeff Mason: President Kenyatta, could you address the questions as well, please?
His Excellency, President Uhuru Kenyatta: Well, I will address them. First and foremost I could not agree more with what President Obama has said especially with regard to the issue of the fight against terrorism. The support and the partnership that we have with the United States of America from the intelligence point of view, from the counter terrorism point of view, but more importantly as he has just mentioned, working with societies and how to prevent, especially extremists from finding a bed of fodder to be able to develop and to grow and to nurture the terrorists of tomorrow. You have also heard him say – indeed we are truly grateful – his expansion under the agreement we have signed of the cooperation and assistance that we are getting from the United States. So, as a country and a Government, we are satisfied with what we are doing, but we need to expand that more because the battle that we are fighting is not a Kenyan war, the frontier of it being a neighbour to a county that for a long time has not had any kind of formal government.
We need to work closer together to see how we can stabilise Somalia. We need to work closer together to see how we can help the Somali Government which is in place work together with its regional governments in order to continuously decrease the area and the space that Al Shabaab and the like have to operate and to train and to export terror not just to Kenya, but also to other parts of the world. So, I am looking forward to deepening the partnership that we already have, but we are satisfied with the kind of cooperation we have already and the close working relationship between our various institutions.
You raised the issue of human rights and I mentioned earlier that the kind of fight we are having right now is an existential fight for us. This is something that we have not been familiar with. Kenya has always been a country that has respected different religions. This issue of terrorism is new to us. And as it is new, we learn with each and every step. We are improving our capacities and our methods of dealing with terrorism. We as a country are willing to learn. We have undertaken fundamental reforms in our police services to help us deal with this particular problem. We are continuing to partner with friends like the United States who are giving us their own experiences as to how they have handled this particular problem and we are keen to learn and participate. I am certain that as we move forward, get better and learn from others, we will be able to handle this situation in a manner that does not – as President Obama said – encourage this kind of activity going forward on the basis of either marginalization or people feeling that particular communities are being targeted.
As a country we have done a lot especially under our new Constitution and new devolved system of Government that is aimed at providing and ensuring that equity and development across the country. We have put a lot of resources into some of the previously neglected areas. In fact, today as we sit, a huge portion; approximately 40 per cent of our national budget is being invested in those areas, in an attempt to ensure that all communities in our country feel that the Government is for them all and that they are part and parcel of the social and economic development of our country. We will continue to improve, learn and participate with all communities and the civil society to strengthen our partnership in order to ultimately be able to defeat this enemy.
With regard to the second question, just like President Obama, we also need to speak with courage on some of these things. The fact of the matter is that Kenya and the United States share so many values; our common love for democracy, entrepreneurship and value for families. These are things that we share. But there are other things that we do not share; our cultures, our societies do not accept. It is very difficult to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day to day living for our people – the health issues that we have discussed with President Obama are critical. Issues of ensuring inclusivity of women; a huge section of society that is normally left out of the mainstream of economic development.
What we can do in terms of infrastructure, education, giving them power and encouraging entrepreneurship, these are the key focuses. Once we have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones. As of now, the fact remains that this issue is not really an issue that is on the foremost minds of Kenyans and that is a fact.
Ken Mijungu: I have two questions for President Obama and one for President Uhuru Kenyatta. President Obama, there has been a perception that Kenya and the US had strained relationships right from the time that we had the new Government. In fact, we had several western countries telling us that choices ad consequences. Is your coming to Kenya sort of a re-set button to tell us that you are ready to renew your relationship with this country that you have had a long running relationship for some years?
Secondly this is with regard to funding. Although you have told us that several agreements have been signed, does it concern your government that indeed there is corruption that has even been taken head on by our President and some Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and other top Government officials are in court because of that? Does it concern your government that indeed you are spending money in a country that the President is concerned about the level of corruption?
To President Uhuru Kenyatta, there has been a perception about Kenya increasingly looking to the East especially after the General Election in 2013 and the things that were said. Is this also an announcement that we are firmly committed to renewing our agreements with our traditional partners and that we are indeed going to work together?
President Barack Obama: Well, first of all, we do not need a reset because the US Kenya relationship continued robustly throughout my presidency. The fact that I did not get here may have gotten people riled up, but frankly, given my familiarity and knowledge with Kenya, the fact that there were many countries across this vast continent that I had never visited, it was always my intention to get to Kenya but I wanted to make sure that people did not think I was playing favourite so quick immediately after I was elected.
To be honest, and I think President Kenyatta will acknowledge this as well, there were deep concerns and tensions arising from the violence that took place in an earlier election. We have not made any secret about that. Accounting is being done of what happened then and we continue to believe that norms have to be observed and all countries, big and small, not just African countries but all countries should be held to high standards in making sure that elections and democratic practices do not lead to violence. The subsequent election that showed growth in the election process, the new Constitution that reflects one of the most progressive articulations – the principles of freedom and human dignity on the continent signals a very positive direction in where Kenya is moving.
President Kenyatta during our meeting acknowledged that there is still more work to be done. Our goal in dealing with all our partners is to be respectful and recognize that ultimately serving countries must make their own determinations about their destiny but be very clear about their values. We can engage and co-operate and work together and occasionally disagree, but that is not a rapture to the relationship, that is just the nature of friends. There are going to be times when we have disagreements. We just had one before this and that is part of the dialogue in the process that takes place between friends.
With respect to corruption, I think it is absolutely the right thing to do and President Kenyatta emphasized this. As I stated to him during our meeting, this may be the biggest impediment to Kenya even growing faster and to more people having even more opportunities. The fact that doing business and ordinary people just moving along their lives here is constantly sucked by corruption at the high level and at the low level. International businesses are concerned if the price of investing in Kenya is 5 per cent or 10 per cent going to some place that does not have anything to do with the project. It is just a mathematical issue.
If they have got a plan for a business and it has got a certain profit and if suddenly some of it is taken off the top due to corruption that makes that investment less attractive and those are the judgements that they make. Then at a more grassroots level, if you get some small business person trying to open up a store and they find that they have to pay bribes here and there to get the business started, that is inhibiting the kind of entrepreneurship that we highlighted earlier this morning. I think President Kenyatta is serious about going after this.
As I indicated to him, if you look at the history of this, because the United States had in the past all kinds of corruption dating back to the founding back of the country. My hometown of Chicago was famous for AL capon, bootlickers and bribery and police on the take, but what we were able to show is that over time, when people of integrity at the highest level say this is a priority and we are going to stop this and are willing to hold people at the highest level accountable and not just the small time corruption, that begins to change the culture.
It is high time the people of Kenya said that this is not the normal way of doing business and they said no to it at every level. That will require some change in habits. I mentioned that sometimes civil servants feel that their salaries are not high enough and they think that that is the way of doing business; they supplement their salary by imposing their own tax to boost their salary. That becomes common place in a department or a bureaucracy. You have to reverse that. That may mean you have to ensure that police officers and civil servants are paid properly. They should have sufficient benefits that they do not feel obliged to do that. Some of it is just breaking these habits and saying no. That comes from the top. I very much applaud President Kenyatta for initiating this campaign. It is going to require the support of Kenyan people and it is going to require some visible prosecutions. I mentioned to him that people are not stupid. If they see an elected official and they know their salaries and suddenly they are driving through town in a very big car or they see their cousin driving through town with a very big car, and suddenly building a new house and all that does not seem to much up with their salary, they have to put them to account and know what is going on. When that happens, people will be held to account. The ideal that the President is putting forward is the right one. That is after execution. That will not just be the President’s job, it will be the job of leadership both locally as well as nationally.
His Excellency, President Uhuru Kenyatta: I think mine was with regard to looking to the East. The first thing I would say is that I could not agree more. We are not talking about a renewal, we are talking about a deepening. The United States of America from the time of our independence has been a very strong partner and ally. Kenya has benefitted from Agoa, it has benefitted heavily in the health sector and education. This has been for all these years and that has never stopped. It has been ongoing. The key point is what I said when we were opening the Summit this morning. The fact is that Kenya as a country is not looking East or West. What we are looking to make progress, to develop our country, to bring prosperity and to build infrastructure. We are looking to partner with our friends, old and new to help us achieve the Kenyan dream; to help us achieve a social economic agenda. The US happens to be a very strong partner of Kenya in our objectives as are many other countries in the world. I see no conflict or contradiction.
Actually I just see deepening of partnerships that already existed, all with the objective of improving business for Kenyans and deepening our people to people partnership as well through trade and investment. So, there is no contradiction whatsoever. We are just strengthening already good relations that exist between our two countries.
Julieta Arthur: President Obama while you front multiple policy initiatives on Africa, it is unclear whether any of them will last your presidency. What do you think needs to happen to ensure you have an Africa policy legacy as during the legacy of presidents Bush and Clinton? To what extent do you think you have meet the expectations people had of you as a son of Africa?
Speaking of your African roots, what did you talk at dinner last night with roughly three dozen of your relatives? Had you met all of them before?
Then I have a question for President Kenyatta: Could you spell out in concrete terms what is different in Kenya today because of President Obama’s election? How his connections to Kenya has shaped up your discussions today and what aspects of his Africa policy do you think will endure after he has left office?
President Barack Obama: Let me first of all underscore that I am really proud of the work that the previous administrations did here in Africa and I have done everything I could to build on those successes. This is not a beauty contest between presidents; this is the US Government and whatever policies need to be put in place in order for us to help our partner countries.
I have said before and I repeat that I think President George Bush’s Pepfar Initiative was as significant an achievement internationally as anything that we have done over the last several decades and it saved millions of lives. This is why I have increased funding substantially for Pepfar during my presidency and continue to build on what was initially a matter of just getting anti-virals and treatment for HIV. We are now building greater capacity within those countries that have received Pepfar funding so that they can do even more themselves in terms of healthcare and infrastructure.
The bottom line is that I want to build on what has been done and fill the gaps that need to be filled. Along those lines, if you look at the future programme, for example, we have got millions of farmers across this continent who as we speak have benefitted from increased yields, increased incomes, better access to small loans that are making them more productive, greater access to market, linking them up with technology in ways that assure that they get a fair price, all of which, since Africa is still disproportionally raw, is increasing incomes and spreading growth and building the middle class in the entire continent.
We can document the extra ordinary progress that has been made there and it is a model that is working and then has been supplemented with private sector investment that is further advancing the development of a more productive agricultural sector across the African continent.
With respect to Power Africa which was just launched a couple of years ago, we initially set a goal of 10,000 megawatts of electricity being generated in sub-Saharan Africa. We were sufficiently successful in lining up interest in investments that we have now tripled and set a goal of 30,000 megawatts. We are on our way towards achieving that goal and so we are well on track.
I know that there was an article in a US publication suggesting that there is no electricity being generated from this year, the next time somebody is interested in how electricity is generated go back home and find out how long it takes to build a power plant. Sometimes these are long term projects but we have billions of dollars of transactions already locked in and billions more in the pipeline. That is just on the traditional power grid side that does not include all the innovative off grid electrical power generation that we witnessed in those bourse that we were passing at the entrepreneurial summer using solar and other biotech and innovative ways to generate power in rural communities that are not going to be connected to the grid any time soon.
So, those are just two examples of initiatives that I am confident will have a lasting effect not because they were initiated by me, but because we felt an extra ordinary need. If we can get sub-Saharan Africa to be electrified at the same levels as Asia has, that alone is going to drive economic growth exponentially because of the productivity that is delivered as a consequence of access to power. Kids suddenly being told to read and do their homework at night. Women relieved of some of the burdens of collecting firewood and how they are able to use basic appliances that we take for granted. Farmers being able to improve their yields. It is a game changer.
When I get to know exactly what that looks ten years from now, and I suspect that the next president, building up on what we have already set up will learn what is working really well and what is not working so well and make some tweaks. I do not have pride authorship. I hope that they figure out even better ways from us to continue the things that we started just as we have refined and improved the excellent work that was done by presidents Clinton and Bush.
In terms of what I was talking with my family; most of it was just catching up. There is a more immediate family that I have known well from previous visits, there was some more extended family that I had not met before – my sister Auma whom I am very close to and we stay in close contact, I think helped to make sure that everybody was represented. I think the people of Kenya will be familiar with the need to manage family politics sometimes, in these extended families. There are cousins, uncles and aunties that show up that you did not know existed, but you are always happy to meet. There were some lengthy explanations in some connections. But it was a wonderful time.
Part of the challenge I have had during my presidency is that I have given the demands of the job and the bubble. I cannot just come here and go up country and visit for a week and meet everybody. That is actually part of what I had to explain – begging for forgiveness, that one time as a private citizen, I will have more freedom to reconnect. Enter, be involved and engaged in some of the work that needs to be done because some of these communities are very poor.
I am more restricted ironically as the President of the United States of America than I will be as a private citizen in terms of some of the hands on direct help that I would like to give partly because of schedule but partly because of making sure that in my relationship to Kenya, I am understood to be operating as the President of the United States and that my interaction is with the Government and non-profits that involve people of any particular country.
His Excellency, President Uhuru Kenyatta: There is one area and that is known in Africa because I know all initiatives that he has mentioned that we are all happy and proud of. One initiative that I would really like to focus on is that President Obama will strongly be remembered in Africa for his focus on the young people of this continent, to be able to extract their talents, their abilities, and he has been very focused on this both through the Young Leaders Initiative and the GES that we have just been attending. He has really been helping us unblock the full potential of Africa’s young men and women. This, I think will be the key legacy that President Obama will be remembered for on this continent for a long time to come.
Jacky Maribe: You both spoke about direct flights that you are planning to launch as soon as possible. How soon is that?
To President Obama, the US has been issuing travel advisories against Kenya which has had a devastating effect to tourism which is our second foreign exchange earner. Is the US planning to take it easy of that issue? Finally, what are your personal plans for Kenya after your presidency?
President Barack Obama: With respect to direct flights, there are very specific protocols and security issues that have to be worked through and sorted out. We sent representatives of our department of transportation and homeland security to work with Kenyan officials and I think really progress has been made. I certainly do not have a real date in front of me and I would not want to make a guess and then if we are late, you will call to me and say that I lied. But I anticipate that if we can get all the issues squared all the way, this is something that has great potential and obviously it would have the beneficial impact on US travel to Kenya both for business and for tourism.
With respect to the travel advisories, this is not something I meddle with. This is something that our State Department and our intelligence communities make assessments on. They are provided in part for our embassy staff and personnel so that they can be mindful of circumstances. But we are bound to also then provide the general public protection or the same information we provide our teams on the ground for understandable reasons. I think the general public would be disturbed if we are saying one thing to fox who are working here and another thing to an ordinary person who is travelling.
I recognize the concerns and I think that despite the seriousness of terrorist threat posed by Al Shabaab in part because of the media attention, probably even more than the travel advisories, that threat can often turn to be exaggerated and that is unfortunate. Part of my answer is perhaps to come here and visit and show the extraordinary progress that has been made in this extra ordinary country. But the specifics behind the travel advisories are judgement calls that are made by our experts. It is not something that I weigh on. It is not something that is subject to political decision making. My solemn goal is to make sure that we are working urgently with President Kenyatta and the administration so that there is no need for the advisories because we will have greatly reduced this threat.
There may be ways in which we can refine them so that, for example, travelling the game parks may be different then, being another circumstances. That is something we can always discuss and explore at the staff level.
With regard to my plans after my presidency, I can guarantee that I will be back. The next time I am back, I may not be wearing a suit. The first time I came here I was in a jeans and a back pack. One of the challenges of travelling and visiting Kenya is that, I am much more constrained now than I will be. I think that you can anticipate not only being back but Michelle, Malia and Shasha coming back because they have got great love for this country, its people and its beauty. They also have family connections. My hope is that some of the philanthropic work I do after my presidency is over builds on some of the things we are doing now. I am not going to stop being interested in the young people of Kenya and Africa. I will continue developing their talent, leaders, entrepreneurs that are going to help this country and the world prosper. You can anticipate that I will continue making those contributions where I can.