"Classic Joe Biden" by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nigeria has a problem. A big problem. For many years now, a radical Islamist insurgency has roiled its northeast. Boko Haram (literally “books are forbidden”), a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, and several other actors in its mould, have brutalised the residents of these regions, particularly Christians, taking many lives and displacing millions.

The defeat of this insurgency has been among the top objectives for successive Nigerian governments since the 2000s. To be sure, the sincerity of this prioritisation is another question altogether, considering the incompetence and corruption which have often sullied the fight, but its propriety cannot be doubted. The insurgency poses a lethal threat to the lives and freedoms of many Nigerians.

Worse, this is only one of the big problems Nigeria has to contend with.

It’s Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, after all. All of its problems tend to be sizeable. For instance, its electricity infrastructure is in shambles. The air in Lagos, its largest city, is always throbbing to the din of generators. Its dependence on oil exports exposes its economy to the fluctuations of the global oil market.

And, as if that were not enough, the other day its central bank banned the use of cryptocurrencies, cutting off many Nigerians from the wild rides Elon Musk likes to take the internet along for!

So, yes, Nigeria has many big problems. In consequence, one would think that those who profess to have the country’s best interests at heart would, at the very least, not try to make things worse, much less attempt to divert attention to issues so minor that they elude the awareness of the vast majority of Nigerians. One would presume that a hand extended in partnership would pay most attention to the big stuff. The small stuff can be sweated later, when the children are safe in school.

Alas, this is not so with the new America, it seems.

The other day, when Mr Joe Biden, the newest of old American Presidents, gave his first definitive statement on foreign policy, he had some choice words for the relationship of his country with Nigeria. Among many things, he said:

“When foreign governments move to restrict the rights of LGBTQI+ persons or fail to enforce legal protections in place [… US] agencies engaged abroad shall consider appropriate responses, including using the full range of diplomatic and assistance tools and, as appropriate, financial sanctions, visa restrictions, and other actions.”

He was speaking at the State Department, announcing a memorandum with which he wished to enshrine the expansion of protections for LGBT rights as a core tenet of American foreign policy. In essence, he was declaring this to be a hill upon which the United States, under his leadership, would choose to die. All this after pundits from Aljazeera to the BBC had proclaimed that Biden’s presidency would likely be more respectful of African countries than that of his predecessor. Well, his words were hardly respectful to African countries, if that word still means anything.

Now, before I’m pilloried for being an intolerant anti-LGBT bigot (or whatever form the insult takes these days) allow me to pin my colours on the mast by quoting my own words in a related article I wrote for MercatorNet in 2019: “As a people, we could use a bit more open-mindedness in our approach to the idea of homosexuality […] Homosexuals are people, however depraved we may think their behaviour to be. That should assure them of our friendship and love, if nothing else does.”

I am not against the rights and freedoms of LGBT people, with whom I share a continent. Their rights are my rights and the law cannot discriminate against them without discriminating against me.

But, to use the words of Kenya’s president when he was pressed by another American president on this matter some years ago, “this is a non-issue” in Africa, “and that’s a fact.” Admittedly, even if it were an issue, it wouldn’t belong among our priorities. We have much bigger fish to fry. Believe me. I’ve lived here all my life.

It is obvious, then, that by conditioning the goodwill of his country towards us on the extent to which our governments kowtow to the LGBT agenda, Mr Biden wants to redirect our priorities away from what is most important for us, to what he thinks should be the most important, because it is important to him. His words constitute a shot across the bow of a whole continent.

It’s exactly what a schoolyard bully would do. And it is tasteless and callous and silly.

If this were one of my previous articles, this is the point where I would point out that Joe Biden isn’t doing anything new, for the recent history of the continent he has just threatened is one of Western colonisation, brutal struggles for independence and, after that, for freedom from neo-colonial domination and economic exploitation.

I would even proceed to beseech him, as the so-called leader of the free world, to refrain from using the awesome power and might of his great country as a cultural cudgel against fragile countries.

But, in this context, to do this might be to argue from a position of weakness, which would be a disservice to our cause. I think it’s proper to change the paradigm, just a little. Over 70 years have now passed since the first African countries became independent. Heck, as independent states, Australia and Canada are more or less the same age as many African countries (and yes, this telling dispenses with tonnes of nuance).

African nations are no longer children in the world. Against great odds (and with the help of well-meaning partners), we have clawed our way from subjugation and lifted millions out of poverty. We are still doing it. Our economies are growing, and we are feeding ourselves better every day. Our expanding population promises to rejuvenate a world in which people increasingly look more like Joe Biden than my brand-new niece. We have confounded the doomsayers over and over.

Listen up, Joe Biden. The Africa you just threatened no longer exists. We will no longer take our marching orders from high-seated self-appointed overlords who pity us with their words, but conceal a dagger behind their back and despise us from the bottom of their hearts.

At least Donald Trump was honest. He said what he thought, and he stood with Africa to defend the values we share. He didn’t pretend to like us, for liking us is not a precondition for respecting our sovereignty, which he did.

In the face of America’s resurgent cultural arrogance under the captainship of Mr Biden, it is imperative for African countries to stand up for their values, to defy him, and anyone who would, like him, attempt to subvert our values. Biden’s shot must be responded to with a shot across his own bow. Africa’s global representatives should register their protest in every forum that matters. And African voters should hold their leaders accountable for any tame capitulations to cultural imperialists.

Lest I be accused of being arrogant, allow me to excuse myself. I’m just exasperated; I’m not blind to the challenges that benight Africa. My memory may not be the best, but I seem to remember that I started this piece with a brief enumeration of Nigeria’s biggest problems. In the particular, they are unique to Nigeria. In their broadest, they hang over the whole continent.

We can still use help (as much of it as we can get) to face up to these challenges and consolidate the gains we have made over the decades. But it is also time to tell you, Joe Biden: if you help us, you don’t own us. If this is the way America wants to love us, we don’t want America’s love.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.