A day after the Supreme Court granted victories to same-sex couples in the U.S., President Obama’s visit to Africa got off to a rough start when his call for tolerance of gays on the continent was rebuffed publicly by the president of Senegal, where homosexuality is a crime.
“People should be treated equally,” Mr. Obama said Thursday at a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, on the first full day of his three-nation tour of the continent.
He said that although Africans have a variety of religions and customs and “we have to respect the diversity of views” of people who personally oppose gay rights, the laws of African nations must grant all people equal protection, regardless of sexual orientation.
“I want the African people just to hear what I believe … when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Mr. Obama said.
That view was promptly rejected by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who was sharing the stage with Mr. Obama.
“We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality,” Mr. Sall said. “I’ve already said it in the past. We’re still not ready to change the law. This does not mean that we are all homophobic.”
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Mr. Obama also visited a site where African slaves were shipped to the New World, saying the experience made him more committed to human rights.
“This is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of human rights what can happen,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a museum on Goree Island, a UNESCO world heritage site off the coast of Senegal. “Obviously, for an African-American, an African-American president, to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of human rights around the world.”
Mr. Obama, his family, aides and Secret Service agents took a six-boat “floater-cade” to the island, which served as a staging area for slave traders centuries ago. There is debate among historians about the extent of Goree Island’s role in the slave trade, but UNESCO describes it as a place where “hundreds of thousands of captured men, women and children were rounded up in chains to be shipped to servitude in the New World.”
The president stood for several minutes at the museum’s “door of no return,” peering “pensively” out to the sea, according to a pool reporter who accompanied Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama called the tour a “very powerful moment” and said it helped him “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade” and “get a sense in an intimate way” of the hardships slaves faced.
Mr. Sall said his majority-Muslim country is “very tolerant,” but he rejected Mr. Obama’s argument that the same civil-rights laws should apply globally.
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“These issues are all societal issues,” Mr. Sall said. “We cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries. Society has to absorb these issues; it has to take time to digest them.”
He said Senegal wouldn’t presume to dictate to the U.S. on its domestic policies such as capital punishment.
“In our country, we have abolished it for many years,” he said of the death penalty. “In other countries, it is the order of the day because the situation in the country requires it, and we do respect the choice of each country.”
Mr. Obama also based his appeal for gay rights in Africa by reminding the Senegalese that the U.S. had overcome Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated against black citizens.
“I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort,” Mr. Obama said. “I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times where people were not treated equally under the law. And we had to fight long and hard through a civil-rights struggle to make sure that happens.”
Addressing Senegal’s Muslim traditions, Mr. Obama said all the world’s major religions share a basic standard of fairness.
“Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule: You treat people the way you want to be treated,” Mr. Obama said. “And I think that applies here as well.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a federal provision that denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples and, in a separate case, cleared the way for California to resume offering marriage licenses to gay couples.
Mr. Obama said his administration is now reviewing whether federal benefits should be extended to same-sex couples even in states that don’t recognize gay marriage.
“We are going to have to go back and do a legal analysis of what that means,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s my personal belief … that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move somewhere else, you’re still married, and that under federal law, you should be able to obtain” federal benefits.
The president arrived in Senegal on Wednesday night on Air Force One with an entourage that included his wife, Michelle Obama; daughters Sasha and Malia; and Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson.
In Dakar, Mr. Obama’s motorcade was greeted with signs such as “Welcome home, President Obama. We wish you a good stay.”
Mr. Obama’s father was born in Kenya, and several of his relatives still live there.
The president also will visit Tanzania and South Africa, where former President Nelson Mandela is said to be on life support in a hospital. Mr. Obama called Mr. Mandela, 94, “a hero for the world.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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