Africa reacts to Obama's pro-gay rights foreign policy

Most of Africa's 54 nations ban homosexuality, so President Obama's promotion of gay rights as a human right draws quick ire from African governments.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Chart: Penalties targeting gays and lesbians in Africa

The enshrinement of equal rights for homosexuals into US foreign policy activities has drawn quick ire from African nations, with one senior figure saying the notion is “abhorrent” across the continent. 

President Obama has instructed officials across government to “ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons” around the world. 

Under the move, legal, moral, and financial support will be boosted for gay rights organizations, emergency assistance will be sent to groups or individuals facing threats, and asylum in the US will be offered to people forced to flee homophobic persecution in their countries, Mr. Obama said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the new focus in a speech marking international human rights day in Geneva Tuesday night. 

Calling discrimination of homosexual and transgender people “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time,” Secretary Clinton said “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” 

“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave,” she said. “It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.” 

John Nagenda, a senior adviser to Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, told The Monitor that this view would be “anathema” to most African nations. 

“I don’t like her tone, at all,” he said.

“I’m amazed she’s not looking to her own country and lecturing them first, before she comes to say these things which she knows are very sensitive issues in so many parts of the world, not least Africa. 

“Homosexuality here is taboo, it’s something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of.” 

Almost all of Africa’s 54 nations ban homosexuality. Uganda drew opprobrium from across the West last year when a bill was tabled in parliament that would have imposed the death penalty for what was termed “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill has since been shelved, but being found to be gay still risks a maximum 14-year jail sentence and Amnesty International has reported arbitrary arrests and torture of suspected gay people in Uganda.   

More recently, Nigeria’s Senate last week agreed a proposed law banning same-sex marriages, again imposing 14-year jail terms for people found guilty, and adding a 10-year sentence for anyone who helps homosexuals marry. 

Writing in Nigeria’s Tribune newspaper Thursday, columnist Leon Usigbe wrote that the new US gay rights policy would provoke a “significant diplomatic confrontation” between Washington and Africa’s most populous country. 

“Diplomatic sources hinted on Wednesday that the timing of the Obama presidential order was too closely tied to the recent passing of a bill by the Senate banning same-sex marriage and relationships,” Usigbe said. 

State Department officials say the timing of the announcement, on Tuesday, was more to do with it being international human rights day than any sudden external impetus. 

But in Kenya, influential church leaders immediately condemned the idea that lesbian, gay, and transgender people deserved extra support to achieve equal rights. 

“We don’t believe in advancing the rights of gays,” said Oliver Kisaka, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya. 

“God did not make a mistake; [being gay] is that person’s own perception. Those who live as gays need help to live right and we should not be supporting them to live in a wrong reality.

“Society should reach out to gays and transgender people to help them out of their situation. They have not ceased to be God’s children and no one is a gone case.” 

Such strident views will draw widespread support in Kenya, and across Africa, but there is some indication that the situation is changing. 

Last year, Rwanda’s justice minister, Tharcisse Karugarama, confirmed that there were no plans to criminalize homosexuality there, after fears that a law similar to Uganda’s was in the offing. 

South Africa, where gay rights are entrenched in the post-apartheid Constitution, took the lead by introducing a resolution to the UN’s Human Rights Council in June that recognized the need to protect the rights of LGBT people around the world. It was passed by 23 votes to 19, with most African and Arab nations opposing or dissenting.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton was not unaware of the debate her comments would provoke. But she referred to earlier campaigns on women’s rights and the fight for racial and religious equality as battles already won from which gay people worldwide could draw strength. 

“Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away,” she said. 

It will take a long time for that view to percolate down to the majority of Africans, says John Nagenda, the Ugandan presidential adviser. 

“A very, very slowly increasing number of Ugandans, and I am one of them, see homosexuals as full human beings who can do what they like in private, between consenting adults,” he said.   

“But people look at me like I am a very funny fish when I say these things, even in my own household, such is the way that these things are looked at on this continent.”

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