NAIROBI, Kenya — Exuberant Kenyans greeted President Barack Obama on Saturday like a long-lost son, but signs of the gulf between the American president and his father’s homeland were on display when he confronted the Kenyan government about gay rights.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Exuberant Kenyans greeted President Barack Obama on Saturday like a long-lost son, but signs of the gulf between the American president and his father’s homeland were on display when he confronted the Kenyan government about gay rights.

Standing side by side with President Uhuru Kenyatta, a staunch opponent of any change to his country’s harsh laws toward homosexuality, Obama, a supporter of same-sex marriage, called on Kenya and other African governments to set an example by banning state discrimination against gays and lesbians.

"When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they’re doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen," Obama said, evoking his own experience with discrimination as an African American in the U.S.

Kenyatta replied that gay rights was a "nonissue" in his country and that his priorities lie elsewhere, with improving health care, education and entrepreneurship.

"There are some things we must admit we don’t share, (that) our culture, our societies don’t accept," Kenyatta said. "It’s very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept."

The testy exchange came early in a three-day trip designed in part to repair the U.S.-Kenya relationship, which has declined in recent years. Despite once-high expectations in this East African nation about the possible benefits to having a Kenyan descendant in the White House, the administration has been somewhat cool toward Kenyatta and there’s been frustration on both sides since Obama took office.

U.S. and Kenya have continued strong military and counterterrorism cooperation, but White House aides say Obama remains concerned about Kenya’s record on human rights, government corruption and democratic reforms, delaying his trip to Kenya until after the International Criminal Court’s decision last year to drop crimes-against-humanity charges against Kenyatta. The case was related to his alleged role in the ethnic clashes that followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 election.

Some Kenyans have felt snubbed, saying Obama’s visit is long overdue and came only after three previous African trips, including one to neighboring Tanzania.

"There was criticism, (such as) ‘What kind of man are you that you don’t come and visit your ancestors?’ " said Macharia Munene, political analyst with the United States International University in Kenya. "He went to Ghana, OK. But then he went to Tanzania right next door. … You just don’t do that."

Kenyans also have said it was hypocritical of the U.S. to distance itself from Kenyatta over the ICC case because the U.S. has refused to join the court. And they complain that Obama has not delivered any new American aid programs, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief under President George W. Bush.

But warm ties between Washington and African nations are usually a reward for good records on democracy, transparency and human rights, and Kenya’s halting progress in those areas has made it hard for the White House to fully embrace it.

Obama also did not want to give the appearance that Kenya was receiving special treatment because of his personal ties, which would undercut his message to other African leaders that nepotism is bad for democracy.

"It was always my intention to get to Kenya, but I wanted to make sure that people didn’t think I was playing favorites so quick immediately after I was elected," Obama said at a news conference Saturday with Kenyatta.

Obama and Kenyatta expressed a desire to rebuild the alliance between their two nations. Kenyatta said the U.S. and Kenya "share deep values in many areas of critical interest." He said U.S. investment in Kenya’s economy and infrastructure was critical.

Despite the cultural differences over things like gay rights, U.S. officials said there’s no room any longer for awkward distance between the United States and Kenya, partly because of the trade and investment opportunities in the region.

"I wanted to be here because Africa is on the move," Obama said earlier Saturday at a Global Entrepreneurship Summit at the United Nations compound in Nairobi, praising Kenya as East Africa’s largest economy. "Kenya is leading the way."

The U.S. also sees Kenya as a strategic partner in the fight against violent extremism, and, in particular, the militant organization al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia. U.S. officials worry that the al-Qaida affiliated terrorist organization could be drawn into an alliance with Islamic State militants or other radical groups.

Kenya has borne the brunt of many al-Shabab attacks. Even as American drones have killed several top al-Shabab commanders in Somalia in recent years, such efforts have not stopped devastating assaults, including an April attack on a university campus in Garissa in northern Kenya, in which at least 147 people were killed. In 2013, al-Shabab militants seized a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people.

Some Kenyan analysts say Obama’s coolness has backfired. Three East African nations — Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda — formed an increasingly strident triumvirate, resisting what they saw as unwarranted Western interference in African affairs.

For many, the most damaging moment came when Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said shortly before the 2013 Kenyan election that "choices have consequences." It was seen by many as a warning that Kenyans should not vote for Kenyatta and William Ruto, who were both facing ICC indictments. Kenyatta and Ruto exploited the remark, portraying it as U.S. interference.

"Once Kenyans heard that, they were furious," Munene said. "It became a crusade: ‘If you don’t want him, we want him.’ " Kenyatta won and appointed Ruto, who is still facing ICC charges, as deputy president.

Munene said U.S. efforts to pressure Kenya only pushed it closer to China, which has invested heavily in recent years to develop economic ties with the continent.

After Kenyatta was elected in 2013, he traveled to Beijing and Moscow as part of a "look East" policy. On Saturday, he said, "We cannot afford the old language of East vs. West. We are aligned to neither. … We are … aligned to progress."

Expectations are high among some Kenyans that Obama will — or should — make up for his perceived neglect with substantial aid.

But the White House tamped down expectations for any announcements about assistance, noting that a significant amount of aid already flows to Kenya and to Ethiopia, the other country Obama is visiting on this trip. For many years, Kenya was the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa, and it still ranks among the top in U.S. assistance programs such as Feed the Future and Power Africa.

Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, signaled that Obama plans to continue his commitment to Kenya, not significantly increase it. "President Obama is building on what has been a strong bipartisan tradition of U.S. support for Africa," she said. "We have been steadily building, including through the Bush administration with President Bush’s obvious strong commitment to Africa, a foundation that is growing, and each brick is layered on the last one."

Some Kenyans support Obama’s tougher approach. Many opposition and civil society groups have encouraged the U.S. to take a stern approach against government corruption and rights abuses.

In the U.S., human rights groups have also called on the Obama administration to maintain pressure on the Kenyan government.


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