Nairobi: President Barack Obama mixed blunt messages to Kenya's leaders on gay rights, corruption and counterterrorism today with warm reflections on his family ties to a nation that considers him a local son.
He foreshadowed a focus on Kenya in his post-White House life, saying, "I'll be back."
Obama's comments during a news conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reflected the unusual nature of his long-awaited visit to this East African nation. His official agenda has been sprinkled with opportunities to reconnect with his late father's sprawling Kenyan family, including some meeting the American president for the first time.
"There are cousins and uncles and aunties that show up that you didn't know existed, but you're always happy to meet," Obama said. "There were lengthy explanations in some cases of the connections."
Obama did little to paper over policy differences with Kenya's government, most notably on gay rights. He drew on his own background as an African-American, noting the slavery and segregation of the US past and saying he is "painfully aware of the history when people are treated differently under the law."
"That's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen," Obama said. "When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread."
Kenyatta was unmoved, saying gay rights "is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact."
A number of Kenyan politicians and religious leaders had warned Obama that any overtures on gay rights would not be welcomed in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The Kenyan gay community also complains of sometimes violent harassment.
Obama also pushed Kenya to tighten its counterterrorism practices, which human rights group say have resulted in serious abuses.
A Human Rights Watch report this year accused the Kenyan government of "extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture by security forces."
"If in reaction to terrorism, you're restricting legitimate organizations, reducing the scope of peaceful organization, then that can have the inadvertent effect of increasing the pool of recruits for terrorism," Obama said. Kenyatta called the scourge of terrorism "an existential fight for us."
The Somalia-based al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida, has conducted major attacks in Kenya, including the 2013 attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall and an April attack in Garissa that killed nearly 150 people.