President Obama's trip through sub-Saharan Africa this week appropriately elevates the region's prominence in the administration's pantheon of foreign policy priorities. Obama is using the tour to promote African democracies, encourage trade and appeal to young people — and, importantly, to dispel the criticism that his presidency has been so preoccupied with other parts of the world that it has given Africa short shrift.
As he visits Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, Obama has the opportunity to highlight some of the region's more vexing social and geopolitical issues. In 38 sub-Saharan countries, including Senegal and Tanzania, homosexuality is a crime. This would be a good moment for Obama to note just how archaic those laws are and how they promulgate violence and discrimination. When asked about this issue at a news conference in Senegal, he said the law should treat everyone equally. He should be more forceful when he gets to Tanzania.
Among the region's military difficulties is a continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although Obama will not visit that country, former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has been appointed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry as a special envoy to the Great Lakes region. The goal is not just to guide policy but to help speed up negotiations between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels who intermittently battle government forces. Feingold's appointment follows the United Nations' dispatch of former Irish President Mary Robinson as a special envoy and its deployment of an "intervention brigade" of African troops to patrol eastern Congo.