By the USA TODAY
Upcoming trip will test U.S. president.
During a one-day visit to Africa in 2009, Barack Obama signaled an end to American hegemony on the continent that had long suffered this country’s heavy-handed intrusion into its affairs. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” the freshly minted president proclaimed in a speech to the Ghana Parliament.
That notion will be tested this month when Obamareturns to Africa to tout its emerging democracies at a time when Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, is challenging the depth of his administration’s global support for gay rights.
Last week, Nigeria’s House of Representatives passed a law that criminalizes gay marriage and any public expression of affection between same-sex couples. It also makes it illegal for any group to publicly support gay rights. Those who violate this law could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. This action comes less than two years after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton staked out America’s worldwide support for gay rights.
“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” she declared in a speech to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. Sub-Sahara Africa is a cauldron of anti-gay laws. In fact, 37 African nations outlaw homosexuality. Just one, South Africa, embraces gay rights. It legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.
Ironically, even Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 2011 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Africa’s first female president, opposes decriminalizing homosexuality in her country. “We like ourselves just the way we are. … We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we’d like to preserve,” she said last year when asked whether she would support an effort to strike down laws that make homosexuality a crime in Liberia, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Two of the three African countries Obama will visit — Tanzania and Senegal — treat homosexuality as a crime, not a human right. While the White House has issued a statement saying the president “unequivocally advocates against violence and discrimination” against gays and lesbians around the world, it’s unclear whether Obama will speak out against Africa’s anti-gay laws during his visit to the continent.
But that’s just what Micheal Ighodaro wants the U.S. president to do. A former gay rights activist in Nigeria, Ighodaro sought asylum in the United States last year after being repeatedly beaten and threatened in that country. He says if Obama speaks out in support of gay rights in Africa that he will one day be able to return home without fear of being imprisoned — simply for being gay.
“I think Obama’s voice will go a long way if he says that African governments need to realize that we have rights, too. I think this is the right time for him to bring up this topic with (Nigerian President) Goodluck Jonathan,” says Ighodaro.
But to do that, Obama must decide whether his global support of gay rights outweighs his grand pronouncement that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
If, in this case, he decides that his quest for global human rights really is more important than his support of African self-determination, what levers can Obama pull to move the continent’s nations away from their intolerance of gays and lesbians? While many are heavily dependent on U.S. foreign aid, the Obama administration is probably reluctant to threaten a cutoff of this dole now that China has supplanted the U.S. as Africa’s biggest trading partner. Instead, the president will have to rely upon public attempts at moral persuasion — and private jawboning sessions — with African leaders to bridge the divide between his position on a pullback from hegemony and his global push for gay rights.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.
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