President Obama is facing criticism over his decision to invite anti-LGBT African heads of state to the White House earlier this week.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, Cameroonian President Paul Biya and his wife are among those who posed for pictures with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during a White House dinner on Tuesday.
“Rolling out the literal red carpet for some of Africa’s longest serving dictators that clearly do not respect the fundamental human rights of their citizens will always paint an unfortunate picture of the U.S. and our relationship with the continent,” Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “It provides easy ammunition to critics who claim the U.S. is only interested in working with those who lend a hand in the fight against terrorism, like Uganda, or those who sit on vast oil reserves, as in Nigeria.”
Nikki Mawanda, a transgender advocate from Uganda who is currently seeking asylum in the U.S., also questioned Obama’s decision to invite Museveni to the White House.
“It’s basically beyond proper,” Mawanda told the Blade on Thursday. “It shows us the president is very comfortable with what Museveni is doing and basically they can sit and mingle.”
The dinner took place during a three-day summit in D.C. attended by nearly 50 African heads of state.
Obama on Tuesday referred to gay rights during a business forum that Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and former New York City Mayor Bloomberg co-hosted at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington. The president said at the White House dinner that African health workers “saving lives from HIV/AIDS” and “advocates standing up for justice and the rule of law” are among those who have inspired him and his family.
Obama did not specifically mention LGBT rights during a Wednesday press conference at the end of the summit.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday specifically applauded Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, during a forum in Northwest D.C.
The Human Rights Campaign is among the organizations that urged Obama to highlight LGBT rights during the summit.
“The summit was a unique opportunity to engage with African leaders and their delegations on the importance of preserving the fundamental human rights of LGBT Africans,” HRC Director of Global Engagement Ty Cobb told the Blade in response to a question about Obama inviting Museveni and other anti-LGBT African heads of state to the White House. “What matters most is whether the United States’ commitment to championing the rights of LGBT Africans was reinforced.”
Homosexuality remains criminalized in more than 30 African countries.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is among the African heads of state who attended the White House dinner, even though those convicted of consensual same-sex acts in his country face the death penalty.
Museveni in February signed into law the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill under which those convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts face life in prison.
The White House subsequently cut aid to Uganda that funded HIV/AIDS programs and other initiatives. The Obama administration in June announced a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for anti-LGBT human rights abuses.
The Ugandan Constitutional Court earlier this month struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but parliamentarians plan to reintroduce it.
Jonathan in January signed a draconian bill into law that, among other things, punishes those who enter into same-sex marriages in Nigeria with up to 14 years in prison. Jammeh a few weeks later described gay men as “vermin” in a speech that commemorated Gambia’s independence from the U.K.
Cameroonian authorities since 2010 have prosecuted dozens of people under the country’s penal code that imposes a sentence of up to five years in prison for anyone convicted of same-sex sexual activity.
The State Department in July 2013 condemned the murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe, a prominent Cameroonian LGBT rights advocate.
In spite of the African country’s anti-LGBT rights record, Cameroonian First Lady Chantal Biya’s distinctive hairstyle has generated buzz in some gay circles.
A post to Logo’s website on Wednesday describes her as the “so-fabulous-it-hurts first lady of Camerooooooooooooon” with hair “piled high to the heavens.”
“Like much of Africa, Cameroon has criminalized homosexuality, which is ironic considering she looks like a drag queen,” it reads. “With Chantal and her hubby, Cameroonian President Paul Biya, in D.C. for the Africa summit, let’s look at La Biya’s ridiculously epic eleganza.”
Obama on Tuesday announced his administration has pledged an additional $33 billion to promote investment and economic development in Africa. The president at the Wednesday press conference said Uganda is among the six African countries with which the U.S. will work to improve and expand peacekeeping efforts on the continent.
“The political reality is that bilateral relationships are more complicated than a single issue,” International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission CEO Jessica Stern told the Blade. “The truth is the White House invitation does create one more opportunity for President Obama to engage President Museveni on this concern. What we actually do believe was inappropriate was civil society having to push for access to the summit, when CEOs and corporations — which have huge impact on people’s lives too — had open entree.”
Mawanda said he understands the need for his country to maintain diplomatic ties with Washington.
“That is the right move,” he told the Blade. “For me the issue is what they are talking about.”
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, on Thursday defended the White House’s record on LGBT rights in Africa.
“The Obama administration has long spoken out — including with our African partners — in support of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals,” he told the Blade. “The summit provided an opportunity to continue these conversations.”
Smith remained critical.
“The Obama administration, and those who come thereafter, need to seriously rethink our partnerships across the continent,” he said. “We need to work more cooperatively and proactively with Africa’s democratic standard-bearers who promote and protect basic human rights, including LGBT rights, not those who consistently and brazenly undermine them.”