Barack Obama called on Africa to end discrimination against homosexuals during the first day of a week-long visit to Africa on Thursday, while also hailing democratic advances on the continent and promising to boost economic ties with the region.
US President Barack Obama kicked off a week-long Africa tour with a visit to Senegal on Thursday, where he praised the country’s democratic institutions but called on Africa to end discrimination against homosexuals.
The visit is the first time the Obama has been to Africa since he took office, barring a one-day stopover in Ghana during his first term, and the first African-American US President was feted by flag-waving crowds on Dakar’s streets as he arrived in the Senegalese capital.
But some of Obama’s first remarks after landing in Senegal were more concerned with domestic policy, lauding a US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage as a victory for democracy.
The court ruling on Wednesday, announced as Obama flew to Senegal aboard Air Force One, made married gay men and women eligible for federal benefits, striking down part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
"It was a victory for American democracy,” Obama said. “At the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans, is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law.”
Flanked by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, Obama trod sensitive ground - homosexuality is a crime in Senegal – by calling on Africa to follow the US example in taking action on gay rights.
Consensual same-sex conduct is a against the law in 38 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, while human rights group Amnesty International warned ahead of Obama’s trip that threats to gays and lesbians were reaching dangerous levels on the continent.
"I want the African people to just hear what I believe," Obama said.
"My basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you... people should be treated equally."
President Sall replied that though Senegal was a "very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being", it was not ready yet to decriminalise homosexuality.
"But of course this does not mean that we are all homophobic,” he added.
‘A moment of great promise for the continent’
Obama was full of praise, however, for the advances made towards democracy across the African continent and in Senegal in particular.
"I see this as a moment of great progress and great promise for the continent," Obama said.
"It's true that Africa faces great challenges, and meeting these challenges together is a focus of my trip. But all too often the world overlooks the amazing progress that Africa is making."
Washington is keen to highlight Muslim-majority Senegal as an example of democracy and good governance in a corner of Africa plagued by instability and the threat of Islamic extremism in neighbouring Mali.
"Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa and one of the strongest partners that we have in the region," Obama said as he stood side-by-side with Sall.
Senegal is pursuing a high-level corruption case against the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade on charges of embezzling up to $1.4 billion during his father’s 12-year presidency.
It is also conducting a trial of Chad’s ex-dictator Hissene Habre on charges of crimes against humanity - the first time a former leader of one African state has been tried by another.
US seeks new trade pact
Developments such as these will also aid Senegal’s economic development, said Obama.
"Trade and investment around the world increasingly flow to places where there are rules and courts play an important role in that," he commented.
Africa is experiencing rapid economic growth and has already seen a flood of investment from America’s superpower rival China, which has a $200 billion annual trade with the continent – twice that of the United States.
Obama said he had instructed US officials to finalise a new trade and investment pact with the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which includes economic heavyweight Nigeria.
Washington is also looking to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) when it expires in 2015. The deal, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, slashes customs duties for African countries building free markets.
“I am looking for ways to renew it but also improve it so it can generate more jobs,” Obama said.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-06-27