President Obama arrived in Ethiopia late Sunday hoping to find common ground with East African leaders on combating terrorism and finding a way forward on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan — a hard-sell mission on the heels of a personal visit to Kenya, where he reached into a grab bag of American history to push an evolving nation into making progress on corruption and the rights of women and gay people.
Administration officials said they didn’t expect a breakthrough during a 90-minute meeting Monday among leaders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, the chairwoman of the African Union and the foreign minister of Sudan.
Instead, they’re likely to resort to increasing sanctions or imposing an arms embargo in South Sudan ahead of an Aug. 17 deadline for a deal, saying warring rivals there have been “unrelenting” in their “recalcitrance” to make peace.
It will be Mr. Obama’s second stab at bringing opposing sides together over contentious issues on his sweep through Africa.
On Saturday, he reportedly offered a straightforward defense of gay rights in an awkward exchange with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta — a frosty moment in an otherwise warm welcome to the land where his father was born.
“If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all 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. Full stop,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Kenyatta embraced Mr. Obama’s push for democracy and entrepreneurship, but stopped there.
“But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share — our culture, our societies don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept,” the Kenyan president said.
Overall, the trip struck a rather upbeat tone, with Mr. Obama casting Kenya’s evolution in personal terms and even poking fun at himself, saying his ardent critics probably thought he went “to look for my birth certificate.”
Mr. Obama is using the trip to promote trade with Africa, as the U.S. Department of Commerce doubles its presence in sub-Saharan countries and brokers billions of dollars in deals. He also is using it to facilitate anti-terrorism partnerships in the wake of attacks that shook Kenya in recent years while prodding the nation to protect individual rights.
Speaking at an indoor sports arena in Nairobi on Sunday, he outlined how far Kenya has come since his first visit to the country as a recent college graduate, when the airline lost his bags and the lights often flickered.
“Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now,” Mr. Obama told an estimated crowd of 4,500.
But he also chided them to do more for women and to root out corruption, drawing from lessons in America as a way to make it sound like less of a lecture. For instance, he said his hometown of Chicago was once infamous for Al Capone and other mobsters who corrupted law enforcement.
“Too often, here in Kenya — as is true in other places — corruption is tolerated because that’s how things have always been done,” Mr. Obama said. “People just think that that is sort of the normal state of affairs. And there was a time in the United States where that was true too.”
He also said equal treatment of women is a key pillar of success for the nation, saying so-called traditions of forced marriage, domestic assault and genital mutilation are “holding you back” and that failure to education or employ women will doom their economy.
“These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century,” he said.
He likened the situation to the U.S. evolution on the Confederate battle flag in the wake of a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“The fact is it was a flag that flew over an army that fought to maintain a system of slavery and racial subjugation,” he said. “So we should understand our history, but we should also recognize that it sends a bad message to those who were liberated from slavery and oppression. Just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it right.”