Dakar, Senegal • Senegalese President Macky Sall has defended his refusal to decriminalize homosexuality one day after publicly clashing with President Barack Obama on the issue at a joint press conference.
In an interview, Sall said it was important for other countries to refrain from imposing their values beyond their borders. He compared his position on homosexuality to other countries' positions on polygamy, which is widely practiced in Senegal.
"We don't ask the Europeans to be polygamists," Sall said. "We like polygamy in our country, but we can't impose it in yours. Because the people won't understand it, they won't accept it. It's the same thing."
Senegal's penal code calls for prison sentences of up to five years and fines of up to $3,000 for committing "an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex."
Despite the law, Sall maintained that gays were not persecuted in Senegal, and were prosecuted only if they violated the law. He also said the population, while opposed to homosexuality, was not actively intolerant.
"I think in Senegal people are very quiet. They are not very violent, even for the homosexuals," he said.
Local activists strongly disagree, pointing out that more than a dozen homosexuals are currently in jail for no other reason than their sexual orientation, with guilty verdicts having been handed down despite a lack of evidence. They also say extortion and other forms of discrimination are rampant.
In February 2008, police rounded up men suspected of being homosexuals after a Senegalese tabloid published photographs of a clandestine gay wedding in a suburb of Dakar. Gays went into hiding or fled to neighboring countries, but they were pushed out of Gambia by the president's threat of decapitation.
A report released this week by Amnesty International says 38 African countries about 70 percent of the continent criminalize homosexual activity.
In four of those Mauritania, northern Nigeria, southern Somalia and Sudan the punishment is death.
These laws appear to have broad public support. A June 4 Pew Research Center survey found at least nine of 10 respondents in Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Sall warned that because of these views, public advocacy on behalf of gay rights could prompt a strong negative reaction. "We need to be careful, because in Africa and in certain Muslim societies, these are subjects that can provoke fundamentalism," he said.
In a December 2011 memorandum, Obama instructed federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas, drawing strong protests from some African officials and many of his African fans. But while experts say the U.S. has forcefully pushed for gay rights behind closed doors, the public positioning has been discreet, with officials often citing concerns about putting local activists in danger.
Prior to this week's Africa trip, Obama's second since becoming president, some advocates had pushed for him to vocally advocate for gay rights, saying the respect he commands in much of Africa could help sway public opinion.
At Thursday's press conference in Dakar, Obama said everyone should be equal under the law regardless of cultural differences. "When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally," he said.
In response, Sall said Senegal was "still not ready" to decriminalize homosexuality. He said the country was "very tolerant" but needed more time to address the issue.
Though Obama's visit was seen as an opportunity to showcase Senegal's stability and history of peaceful democratic transition, the front pages of local newspapers on Friday were dominated by talk of the exchange on homosexuality. The newspaper Liberation, for example, praised Sall for his "courageous" stance and, alongside a photo of Obama and Sall, ran a banner headline that played on Obama's famous campaign slogan: "No, we can't."
Sall said Friday that he was not disappointed that the issue of homosexuality had received so much attention. He said he welcomed the opportunity to contrast his views with Obama's.
"I'm not disappointed, because I'm a democrat and I can understand very well the position of President Obama on this topic," Sall said. "We are friends. We are partners."
Asked Friday if he thought the day might come when gays are accepted in Senegal and throughout Africa, Sall said it was impossible to predict.
"I don't know what will happen in 10 years, because the world changes," he said. "It depends on each culture or each civilization. We have to take time. Because people need time to absorb. It's not something you can have in one day."