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Culture shock for a U.S. Ambassador

By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor

The interactive session between the United States senior diplomat and three Nigerian journalists at the U.S. consulate in Lagos had been scheduled the week before. Ambassador Adam Ereli, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the States Department heads the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which has a budget of $635 million and over 400 employees.

His brief is to advance U.S. foreign policy interests through educational and cultural programmes, an assignment that keeps him busy, not only in the continental United States, but across the world wherever U.S. interests are found. It was part of that brief that brought him into intercourse with the three Nigerian journalists penultimate Tuesday.

Ambassador Ereli was deputy spokesman for the department of state between 2003 and 2006, ambassador to Bahrain between 2007 and 2011. He also served in Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Egypt and Qatar.

Mr Ereli
Mr Ereli

The ambassador’s tour of duty to these mostly conservative Middle-East countries should have opened his eyes to the inclinations of a conservative and religiously minded people as are also found in Nigeria. But not so, it seemed when we met him as he seemed worried by the popular repugnance for homosexual practises, rights or whatever by most Nigerians.

Speaking against the background of the bill passed by the National Assembly prescribing harsh punishment for homosexual marriages and related deviant practises, Ambassador Ereli said: “You don’t want to be a society that treats certain citizens and others another way, they are all Nigerians. So, I would argue that discriminating against gay people undermines the rule of law and that doesn’t mean that you have to allow for gay marriage,” Ereli started as we listened to him.

Campaign for civil liberties
Seemingly equating the fight for the rights of homosexuals to the campaign for civil liberties in the United States, he said: “We talked about the right of women, then we talked about the rights of minorities, now we are talking about the rights of immigrants and gays, it is all the same discussion, it is the right of people who are not like you and me but who still live in the same country.”

“So, for America the more we share with a country, the more we can do with the country. We have affinity with countries that share our values and in many ways Nigeria shares our values particularly on the issues of race relations, particularly on the issues of playing a responsible regional role.”

Ambassador Ereli, nevertheless agreed that the U.S. is not the world’s policeman, saying:“Contrary to what many people believe America is not the world’s policeman, it is not up to us to tell people what they should do and how they should do it. America can say what it believes in, what it stands for and why which is what I just did. It is up to other countries to decide, they are sovereign, it is up to them to decide for themselves what policies they take and how they treat their citizens.”

On the basis of that admission, I reminded him that Nigeria has a law against sodomy which makes homosexual engagements a crime. “Are you saying that Nigeria should decriminalize it,” I asked him?

“I am not saying that. I am saying that it is troubling when certain laws circumscribe rights of speech, rights of assembly and discriminating certain citizens based on sexual orientation or sexual views.” Given his earlier antagonism against the bill passed by the National Assembly against homosexual marriages, I reminded him that even not as harsh as the Nigerian law, but that the U.S Congress also passed the Defense of Marriage Act which recognises marriage as that between a man and a woman.

The diplomat in his response said that the law would come up for review as time progresses. As we took him up on his cultural foray, I asked why the United States was not putting as much focus on anti-corruption measures as it was putting up in the defence of homosexuals in Nigeria.

“We have been very clear about corruption in Nigeria. We have been very clear that this is a practice that exists in Nigeria as it exists in nearly all other country in the world, that it is an impediment to growth.”

While he asserted that the U.S. administration is determined to work with the government of Nigeria to address measures against anti-corruption in a meaningful way, the Nigerian journalists did not leave a doubt in the mind of the visiting senior administration official that he has a tough job breaking Nigerian culture on the matter of homosexuality.


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