Responding to the landmark Supreme Court decision yesterday supporting same-sex marriage, President Obama started his tour of Africa by calling the ruling a “victory for American democracy,” but he prompted an immediate response from his African host, Senegalese President Macky Sall, over gay rights in Africa, where homosexuality is still largely criminalized.
“It’s my personal belief, but I’m speaking now as a president not as a lawyer, that if you marry someone in Massachusetts and you move somewhere else, you’re still married,” Obama said at a news conference in Senegal during his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office. “We’re going to be evaluating all these issues.”
As he stood next to President Sall, Obama stepped into the thorny issue of homosexuality in Africa by urging African nations that treat homosexuality as a crime, like Senegal, to make sure that gays and lesbians were not discriminated against by the government.
“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Obama said.
But Sall felt the need to respond.
“We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality,” Sall said, while insisting that the country is “very tolerant” and needs more time to digest the issue without pressure. “This does not mean we are homophobic.”
But a report released Monday by Amnesty International said homosexuality is criminal in 38 African countries—punishable by death in four of those, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia and Sudan. A survey in early June by Pew Research Center reported that nine of 10 respondents in Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
This view was reflected by 19-year-old student Papi Nbodj, who stood by the road to the presidential palace to see Obama’s arrival. He said homosexuality is against the religious beliefs of most in Senegal.
“We are in a Muslim country, so we certainly cannot have it here,” he told the Associated Press. “And for me it’s not OK to have this anywhere in the world.”
Though Sall tried to reassure Obama that gays are not persecuted in Senegal, Senegalese law says “an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex” can be punished by up to five years in prison.
Ndeye Kebe, president of a human rights organization that works with homosexuals called Women’s Smile, said Sall was not telling the truth when he said gays are not discriminated against.
“I know of around a dozen people who are in prison for homosexuality as we speak,” she said. “There wasn’t any real proof against them, but they were found guilty and they are in prison.”
In February 2008, police in Senegal rounded up men suspected of being homosexual after a Senegalese tabloid published photographs of a clandestine gay wedding in a suburb of Dakar. Gays were forced to go into hiding or flee to neighboring countries, though they had to stay out of Gambia because of the president’s threat of decapitation.
Obama said he’s directing his administration to go through all the federal statutes to make sure the nation’s legally married gay couples have equal federal footing with all other married Americans.
He wants to make sure gay couples legally married in one state retain their benefits if they move to another state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage.
Obama also commented on the Supreme Court’s decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, on the continuing saga of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the health status of Nelson Mandela.
On the Voting Rights Act, the president said the court had dealt a blow to a law that was “the cornerstone and the culmination of years of struggle, blood, sweat, tears; in some cases, deaths.”
“I might not be here as president,” he added, without the Voting Rights Act.
He urged Congress to “simply make sure that everyone around the country can vote.”
As for Snowden, Obama tried to downplay the significance of the whistleblower, who fled Hong Kong to Russia after revealing that he had leaked sensitive surveillance information. Obama said he had not called the presidents of China or Russia because he didn’t want to elevate Snowden’s importance.
“This is something that routinely is dealt with,” he said of China and Russia refusing to turn him over. “This is not exceptional from a legal perspective. I’m not going to have one case suddenly being elevated to the point where I have to do wheeling and dealing and trading.”
Since Snowden apparently still hasn’t left Moscow, Obama was asked if he would order the military to intercept a plane Snowden might be traveling on.
“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” the president said.
The president expressed his admiration for Mandela, just before he is set to visit South Africa. He recalled the impact Mandela had on him while he was a student at Occidental College dabbing his foot into political activism by protesting apartheid in South Africa.
“I had read his writings and speeches and understood this was somebody who believed in the basic principle I just talked about — treating people equally. He was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief,” Obama said.
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting Madiba and speaking to him,” Obama continued. “He is a personal hero. But I don’t think I’m unique in that regard. I think he is a hero for the world. If and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on for all the ages.”
After arriving at the palace along a driveway lined with palm trees and bright orange flowers, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, the president was greeted at the palace by Sall and his wife, Mareme Sall.
There was excitement and throngs of people to greet him, but some Africans have criticized Obama for what they say has been a lack of attention and investment in the continent where his father was born±±—particular since Chinese leaders have been such a frequent presence in Africa, investing billions of dollars in infrastructure throughout the continent.
“China’s paying a lot of attention to Africa,” Obama said during his news conference. “Brazil, Turkey, India, are heavily invested in trying to expand trade and commerce with Africa.”
When reporters tried to ask questions about matters other than Africa, the president sounded frustrated.
He said too often Africa is “not focused on by our press and our leadership back home, unless there’s a crisis.”