Their meeting made for some uncomfortable visuals as Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defended a national law that criminalized homosexuality in front of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, long an advocate for gay rights, who was visiting Liberia in his capacity as the founder of the African Governance Initiative (AGI), a nonprofit dedicated to building the capacity of African governments. But the terse exchange masked a deeper, more serious question: should Western leaders try to impose their morality on African governments?
In recent years, the West has increasingly tied developmental aid to social markers, insisting on benchmarks like increased government transparency or the strengthening of human rights protections as preconditions for African nations to receive foreign aid. Protection for homosexuals and their equality within society are beginning to make their way into this discussion. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that America's foreign aid budget would now also be used to promote the protection of gay rights. For the West this is a human rights issue, falling into the category of protection for an oppressed class of people. The view from Africa is somewhat different. If President Sirleaf's reaction is any indication, this stance is being taken on the continent as Western moralizing and an attempt to once again impose foreign values onto Africa.
There's no denying that it is tough to be gay in most of Africa. Homosexuality is currently illegal in 37 of Africa's 54 nations. Last year The Mantle ran a gripping personal account of what it was like to be a gay man and gay activist in Uganda, a country that several months ago made global news for its proposed law that would have imposed custodial jail sentences on homosexuals simply for being gay. A major Ugandan newspaper even ran the photographs of several gay Ugandans along with the banner headline “Lynch Them”. Current Liberian laws are not as tough as those in Uganda, though homosexual acts are technically punishable by up to a year in prison; laws with more severe punishments are being debated in Liberia's legislature.
While Blair simply refused to answer questions about Sirleaf's remarks during their joint press conference, it is unlikely that AGI can follow the same policy to just continue to ignore the homosexuality issue; nor do we yet know how the US State Department will put their protection of gay rights mission statement into action. This begs the question of how far should Western governments and NGOs go in promoting the idea of respect for gay rights when dealing with reluctant African governments?
Liberia is perhaps the perfect test case. For years Liberia was the site of the planet's most-brutal civil war. The use of child soldiers, mutilations and rape as a weapon were all commonplace during the Liberian conflict, as was the capture and enslavement of both opposition fighters and ordinary Liberians to serve as forced labor in the illegal diamond mines that provided the economic basis for the conflict. Liberia seemed to be Africa's eternal, unstoppable war; yet a shaky peace agreement was hammered out and the plan for a new government established.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made history in 2005 when she became Africa's first elected female head of state. The task before her was immense, literally creating a state out of nothing, as the destruction from the civil war had been so complete. Liberia today remains one of the world's poorest, least developed states, yet it is functioning at a rudimentary level and it achieved a major milestone last year when Sirleaf was elected to a second term in office in a hotly-contested election that easily could have sparked off a new round of fighting, but didn't. For these achievements, Sirleaf was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Liberia remains dependent on foreign support to help to continue their fragile state of development. Yet sitting face-to-face with one of her nation's benefactors, Sirleaf was unwilling to concede what she considers a moral point: that Africans consider homosexuality wrong (in her opinion obviously, but an opinion seemingly shared by many of her countrymen). As far as adopting Western mores towards homosexuality, Sirleaf said: “We like ourselves just the way we are. We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.” Her position, and similar positions taken by other African states present Western governments and aid agencies with a conundrum: how far do they go in their promotion of acceptance for homosexuals as a human rights issue with a reluctant government like Sirleaf's? Do anti-gay laws justify the withholding of foreign aid? In the case of a country like Liberia this is hardly just an issue for academic debate, their current state of development is so precarious that any back-sliding in terms of economic growth could reignite long-simmering ethnic tensions and renew fighting, which begs the question, what's worse for Liberia's gay community: anti-gay laws and a lack of societal acceptance or the potential for a new civil war?
And there's the more esoteric question mentioned previously: is this a case of the West trying to impose their morality on Africa, or is this a core human rights issue? Don't nations and peoples have an inherent right to live by their own moral code, even if others disagree with its underlying concepts? Conversely, if one believes that acceptance for homosexuals is in fact a core human right then don't foreign agencies themselves have a moral obligation to do everything that they can to enact positive changes in these reluctant countries? And to remove any bias for/against gay rights, let's replay Sirleaf's cultural argument on a topic like child labor or forced marriages and see if we come to the same conclusions.
It is a complex topic, one that likely defies a simple answer, yet one must be found so long as aid agencies bring gay rights into their mission statements while leaders like Sirleaf become steadfast in their opposition.
Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancoxAfrica, Development, Gay Rights, Human Rights, Uganda, US Foreign Policy