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Africa Is Rising -- Unequally

The Economist thinks that Africa is rising and in a detailed report in December 2011 called it "The Hopeful Continent." Good news, isn't it?

The writers cite the Onitsha market in southern Nigeria as a giant trading hub in a region that is home to "millions of highly motivated entrepreneurs and increasingly prosperous consumers." Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing countries are African; in many years Africa is growing faster than East Asia. Although commodities and Chinese investment are often the main driver of growth, all this is good news. Things are looking up for a continent which too often has been merely a dead-end for donations by rich countries.

Unfortunately, development is very unevenly spread. Most Africans still live on less than two U.S. dollars a day. The average lifespan in some countries is below 50. Drought and famine persist. Deforestation and desertification are still on the march, The Economist qualifies.

The patchiness of economic success is even more important in the light of political and social developments. Corruption is plaguing every African nation, and so are bigotry and homophobia. Religious zealots, social conservatives, and what they like to call "freedom from the moral corruption of the West" make Africa one of the worst places in the world to be different.

The very same Nigeria which has just been lauded for its economic progress, is also the last in a series of African countries to enshrine homophobia in law. Nigeria now plans to criminalize gay marriage. Homosexuality is already illegal. In the Muslim north, gays and lesbians are being stoned to death, as they are in other Islamic countries, such as Iran. The new bill is a sure path to more violence and discrimination.

What's to be done? In a continent riddled with extreme poverty, injustice, and violence against all vulnerable elements of society, is it too early to push for gay rights? It might seem offensive to speak about gender equality, when all around you bloated bellies, lack of sanitation, deforestation, and shocking brutality against women in war zones testify to much more rampant problems. But it is not.

What is so particularly ironic about Nigeria's last bill is that it seeks justification not in African traditions, but rather in other imported values: Christianity and Islam. It is clearly a religious bill. Senator Domingo Obende, who sponsored it, called its chances of passing good, because "Nigeria is a society that is very, very godly." All over Africa religious fundamentalism is rearing its ugly head, a lot of it funded by groups in the U.S.

Gay rights, ultimately, are not just about gays. They are the most visible measures of the principles of equality and equal treatment of all peoples. Countries that have allowed gay marriage and have enshrined equality in their laws tend to be a lot less racist and violent. Discrimination for sexual orientation or gender forms only one facet of equality.

The panacea for intolerance and extremism are peace and economic development, agreed. But we need to stop the stoning of gays, and the "corrective" rape -- often institutionalized -- of lesbians now, not in twenty or thirty years.

However, at this stage of development, barging in with "gay rights" demands may be counterproductive in many African countries. Traditional societies are often offended by talk of sex. What's more, gay activist live under constant threat of death and violence.

But, as Secretary Clinton said in Geneva: gay rights are human rights. So maybe the way to go is to reframe the debate in terms of human rights, general tolerance, acceptance, and equality.
The work of the UN, the spread of the Internet, and the wide spectrum of NGOs taking up Clinton's message that there isn't a gay agenda, only a human rights agenda, are all steps in the right direction.

If Africa is indeed on the path of fast development, it needs our help to develop the institutions and networks that push for openness and tolerance. I'd like to hear your suggestions of how we in America and Europe can help to create more open societies in Africa, even from afar. Obviously, we cannot count on churches to bring about these much-needed values.

Wikipedia map of the world showing gay rights situation.

The writer's latest book is Gabriel, a story about greed, corruption, life alternatives and hope in the world of diplomacy. Marten Weber can also be found on Facebook.com/martenweber

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