08/01/2014 05:19 EDT | Updated 10/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Economic Development And Human Rights Shouldn't Be Mutually Exclusive

About 50 African leaders are going to be travelling to Washington, D.C., next week to talk about the economy. This is going to be a very profound gathering, where leaders of African countries, come together, united on one front, to advance their common good and goals. In an article published in The New York Times, a question was posed, as to whether President Barack Obama should also use this opportunity to talk about the many human rights issues that underlie the legal, political, and social realities of countries in Africa. My answer to this question is a definite and categorical, yes.

A court in Uganda recently ruled on the anti-gay bill that was passed by the parliament in Uganda. In this court ruling, the court struck down the Anti gay law, and this ruling left gay rights activists and allies elated, both in Uganda and in the international community. This ruling, in my opinion, is definitely a very important ruling, but one must also understand the court's reasoning in this case. The law was struck down on technical rather than substantive grounds. So, the court argued that the law was invalid because the parliament did not have the right quorum at the time that the vote for the bill was held. Thus, the court struck down the law because it violated parliamentary procedures, not because they deemed the content of the law itself to be unconstitutional.

Now, this is not to say that the court striking down the law is not a victory, because it is. But, it is now an open question whether the parliament would reuptake the bill and vote on it again, and there is a possibility that they would, since the content of the law was not challenged, simply how it was voted on. So, this is an absolute victory, but one that we must receive with caution, as was noted by Frank Mugisha and other Ugandan activists. The problem is, the judicial and legislative branch, both in Uganda as was demonstrated today, and in many other African countries, are not willing to have widespread societal dialogue about substantive human rights issues, such as LGBT rights. And it is for this reason, as reflected in the ruling, amongst other reasons, that it would be a completely frustrating disappointment, if Barack Obama and other American officials do not use this economic forum to talk about human rights issues in African countries, such as the plight facing the gay community in said countries.

Another reason why it is important that this gathering also initiate a forum on human rights issues is that economic development is completely dependent on respecting the human rights and dignity of others. The problem is, if there is a faction of the populace, such as women and homosexuals, that is being oppressed by legal rules and cultural norms, then that society would be unable to reach its full potential. For instance, if homosexuals are targeted and arrested in Nigeria, in accordance with our anti gay laws, then the country would be unable to reap the potential of those persons who are arrested because of their sexuality.

Another issue is women's rights. If women are continually being denied access to education or if cultural hostilities make it difficult for a woman to receive an education, then that society looses out on the potentiality that comes from educating the girl child. So, if the human rights of persons are not being respected in certain African countries, then one cannot expect economic development to reach its peak. Thus, economic development and human rights are intricately tied together, and one cannot have a conversation about the former, without having a conversation about the latter.

As such, these aforementioned human rights issues amongst others must be discussed openly. My country, Nigeria, and so many other African countries have a lot of potential that must be cultivated with care. Our natural resources are plentiful, our infrastructures are deficient but they can be fixed, our science and technology industry is young and readily available to be improved. There is potential, and with this potential comes great hope, and a lot of countries, like the United States and China recognize this, which is why the former precedes to have forums about economic development in Africa.

But as argued above, economic development and human rights issues are mutually inclusive. What does it matter how much natural resources we have, when the revenue from those resources are not invested in enhancing the potential and dignity of each and every individuals. What does it matter how many cars we eventually learn to start manufacturing, the roads we pave and buildings we erect, if those cars are used to transport homosexuals on our freshly built roads to the freshly built prisons. What does it matter how much economic growth is reached, when the human cost of our political, legislative, and judiciary choices are not addressed head on. What does it matter how fruitful the gathering on economic development is, when the leaders are not forced to confront substantive human rights issues.

A dialogue on human rights with the 50 African leaders would not solve the immediate problems that persons whose rights are violated face, as has been proven in the past. It would, however, force these leaders to confront the brutal realities that have caged persons whose rights are being violated. A dialogues is not a solution, but it a good start, it is a way that the United States can show solidarity with LGBT persons, women, and other people whose rights are being violated in certain African countries, it is a way to hold these leaders accountable to their political decisions, it is a way to assert the profound proclamation that countries cannot have a conversation about economic development without having a conversation about human rights.


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