What you need to know:
- As the Obama administration has increased funding of gay rights groups abroad, tied overall aid to respect of gay rights and recently created the position of Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, some African leaders have pushed back with tough anti-gay laws and language that have fuelled sentiment against gay people.
- It will be a chance for Obama — who will visit Kenya and Ethiopia during this trip, most likely the last one to Africa during his presidency — to reshape the narrative surrounding gay rights on the continent, activists say.
- Charles Kanjama, vice chairman of the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, which opposes gay rights and has organised protests against Obama’s visit, said that the president’s comments in 2013, along with some American policies, had helped his cause.
President Barack Obama had not even left for his trip to Africa this week when he started getting a lot of advice about what he should — or should not — say about gay rights after he lands.
Some politicians in Kenya have warned against bringing up the topic at all during his visit. Alarmist articles in Nigeria’s news media have argued that Obama will press the continent to accept same-sex marriage. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president and the current head of the African Union, mockingly said that he would propose to Obama.
With the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right still fresh in the minds of many Africans, Obama will be visiting a region where many have decried America’s increasing emphasis on gay rights in its foreign policy.
As the Obama administration has increased funding of gay rights groups abroad, tied overall aid to respect of gay rights and recently created the position of Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, some African leaders have pushed back with tough anti-gay laws and language that have fuelled sentiment against gay people.
Activists across the continent — many of whom believe that some of the US government’s measures in Africa have backfired — are waiting with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation at what Obama may say.
“Obama is not your typical American president. His father was Kenyan, and he’s coming to visit Kenya,” said Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum in Uganda. “There will be no other US president in the position that he is in to speak about LGBT rights in Kenya, never. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
It will be a chance for Obama — who will visit Kenya and Ethiopia during this trip, most likely the last one to Africa during his presidency — to reshape the narrative surrounding gay rights on the continent, activists say. On his last trip to Africa in 2013, Obama was seen as wagging his finger at Africans on gay rights during a news conference with Senegal’s president, Macky Sall.
Sall swung back, saying that laws governing gay rights were Senegal’s alone to decide. The United States should respect that choice, he added, just as Senegal, which had long abolished the death penalty, respected America’s position on that matter. The comments quickly established the script for other African leaders.
“Obama should talk about it but not the way he did last time, which was too blunt, like a general speaking down to a young soldier,” said Ndeye Kebe, president of Women’s Smile, a lesbian rights group in Senegal.
“There were repercussions all over Africa,” she added, contending that she and many other African activists subsequently faced greater harassment.
Charles Kanjama, vice chairman of the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, which opposes gay rights and has organised protests against Obama’s visit, said that the president’s comments in 2013, along with some American policies, had helped his cause.
“That heavy-handed approach tends to result in blowback,” Kanjama said. “It’s clumsy and ineffective. In fact, in Kenya, what I would expect is if Barack Obama comes and talks strongly about this issue, organisations like mine will end up having greater financial support from the general public.”
On Tuesday, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said at a news conference that gay rights was “a non-issue” and “definitely not on our agenda at all” in his upcoming meeting with Obama.
A lawmaker in Kenya’s governing party, Irungu Kang’ata, has led a campaign warning Obama against mentioning gay rights during his visit. Any statement, he said, would be an infringement on Kenya’s sovereignty and the latest example of America’s effort to impose its values on Africa.
“What informs America to hold the issue of gay agenda as being so key to its foreign policy?” he asked.
Across the continent, homosexual activities remain illegal in most countries, where colonial-era laws are still widely in effect. Only South Africa recognises same-sex marriage.
But as the United States and European nations have pressed for the respect of gay rights in Africa, several African countries have toughened and broadened laws against gay Africans. In the last few years, Nigeria, Uganda and Gambia passed laws that imposed severe punishment for homosexual activities and gay organisations, though Uganda’s law was eventually declared void on a technicality.
“It’s much more difficult now making the argument that these are colonial laws,” said Anneke Meerkotter, a lawyer specialising in gay rights at the Southern Africa Litigation Center here in Johannesburg.
In response, the United States imposed sanctions on Uganda and Gambia, though not on Nigeria, a richer and more strategically important nation. On a continent where many nations remain dependent on foreign assistance, the punitive moves, coupled with a broader policy that ties aid to the respect for gay rights, proved widely unpopular.
The measures tapped into a deep-rooted resentment on the continent that aid is a tool used selectively by the West against Africa.
“The United States has used aid and imposed economic sanctions to encourage African nations to democratise, which most Africans support,” said Abubakar Momoh, a political scientist at Lagos State University in Nigeria. “But it’s a different thing with gay rights, which most Africans oppose.”
The sanctions hardened popular sentiments against gay groups, many say. More Africans came to believe that gay rights were a Western imposition. Nicholas Opiyo, the executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights group, endorsed the sanctions but said they created the “perception that the general population was being hurt”.
Eric Gitari, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Kenya, agreed that the sanctions caused widespread repercussions against gay groups across the continent.
“They antagonised the general public, while we are seeking to be accepted and respected by the general public,” he said.