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Why Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is making homophobic jokes about Obama

Robert Mugabe in February
Robert Mugabe in February

News of the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage has reached the Republic of Zimbabwe, where 91-year-old dictator Robert Mugabe went on national radio to express his displeasure at the ruling and at President Obama's support of LGBT rights. Because he is Robert Mugabe, he found a somewhat odd way to articulate his views:

I’ve just concluded – since President Obama endorses the same-sex marriage, advocates homosexual people and enjoys an attractive countenance – thus if it becomes necessary, I shall travel to Washington, DC, get down on my knee and ask his hand.

In case you don't speak Mugabese, he's saying that President Obama's support for same-sex marriage means he is probably gay. And by joking that he'd like to propose marriage to Obama, Mugabe believes he is calling attention to how ridiculous even the idea of same-sex marriage is. A man proposing to another man! How silly!

Mugabe has been stirring up homophobia for years. It's a play for populism and a way to divert attention from tougher issues. He's also used homophobia as a way to attack President Obama, who is popular in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and thus deflect American criticism of Zimbabwe's dictatorial regime.

"Then we have this American president, Obama, born of an African father, who is saying we will not give you aid if you don’t embrace homosexuality," Mugabe said in July 2013. "We ask, was he born out of homosexuality? We need continuity in our race, and that comes from the woman, and no to homosexuality. John and John, no; Maria and Maria, no."

Homophobia, often encouraged along by authoritarian or populist leaders like Mugabe, is a problem in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the region criminalizes homosexuality. A global Pew study on attitudes toward homosexuality found that surveyed African countries tended to be among the least likely to agree that society "should accept homosexuality." The more comprehensive World Values Survey yielded similar results.

As gay rights improve in much of the world, they're getting worse in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A 2013 Amnesty International report detailed worsening and "dangerous" homophobia across much of Africa. This is not uniform to the continent, of course, and some countries such as South Africa have positive and improving LGBT rights situations. The causes of this are complex — the legacy of European colonialism, the perverse incentives of post-colonial authoritarianism and conflict — but the problem is real.

So why call out Obama specifically? The Obama administration's efforts to support LGBT rights in Africa has at times been met with backlash and a belief, encouraged by populist or authoritarian African leaders, that the United States wishes to impose homosexuality on Africans. Mugabe is doing what he can to make that worse.

Hat tip to Kate Cronin-Furman for the link.

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