President Barack Obama’s spat with the Senegalese president over gay rights followed him throughout his seven-day, $100 million African trip. His call to end discrimination prompted terse objections from Senegalese and Kenyan diplomats, culminating Sunday with Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto’s declaration: “We believe in God.”
Whether gay rights were on the president’s original agenda for his trip or not, a reporter’s question Thursday gave the president an opportunity to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings: “When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.”
The question came at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall. Irked by Obama’s continued remarks, Sall insisted his country is “very tolerant” and needs more time to digest the issue without pressure: “This does not mean we are homophobic.”
Sall said he understood Obama’s position, calling him a friend and comparing rejection of homosexuality to that of polygamy in Europe: “We don’t ask the Europeans to be polygamists. We like polygamy in our country, but we can’t impose it in yours. Because the people won’t understand it, they won’t accept it. It’s the same thing.”
Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries, including Senegal, punishable with jail time and even death in four regimes. In a December 2011 memorandum, Obama instructed federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas, drawing strong protests from some African officials and many of his African fans. Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Ivory Coast held a gay pride gala, closed to reporters.
Kenya’s Ruto rejected Obama’s advice Sunday at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Maili Kumi: “No one should have any worry about Kenya’s stand as a God-fearing nation. President Obama is a powerful man, but we trust in God, as it is written in the Bible that cursed is the man who puts trust in another man."
Obama’s father is from Kenya, but the country was not on the president’s African itinerary. One reason: Ruto and president Uhuru Kenyatta, among others, await trial with the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. After the country’s 2007 disputed election, the politicians allegedly incited and financed violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced as many as 600,000.
During his trip, Obama visited Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. Security measures pushed the cost of the trip to nearly $100 million, and the gay rights squabble overshadowed many of Obama’s plans to encourage continued economic development in Africa, where millions have recently risen above the extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Kenya is one of six countries that will divide $7 billion in American aid to expand limited electricity service. “America has made a tremendous contribution to Kenya’s well-being and we are very grateful and as a government we are ready to receive any help from America that will improve the lives of our people,” Ruto said. “Those who believe in other things, that is their business. We believe in God.”