MONROVIA, Libera – It was striking when the president of this country, a woman who has been the center of international prominence and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, defended a law that criminalizes same-sex activity. When asked about the law, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said: “We like ourselves just the way we are.”

The legislation by the Liberian Congress would make “voluntary sodomy” a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to one year in prison. The urge to criminalize same-sex activity is not confined to this country by any means. It has become widespread throughout the African continent.

More recently, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda took Africa’s anti-gay sentiment to an even higher level. In February, he signed into law a bill imposing some of the harshest sanctions anywhere for same-sex activity. The Uganda law includes life sentences for some sex acts.

That action came less than a month after same-sex marriage was banned in Nigeria. While the Liberian legislation has remained in a dormant state, the anti-gay legislative crusade is going full throttle in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria approved a law that would impose prison terms of up to 14 years for people who are found guilty of same-sex acts.

Soon afterward, Nigerian authorities arrested 10 men who were thought to be guilty of committing same-sex acts under the new law. There were also reports of people being detained and beaten as a result of alleged homosexual activity.

Why is all this happening? Why is Africa becoming the hotbed of such hostility to gay people?

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Wikipedia Commons) (67287)

Many clergy, elected officials and human rights activists say that the fast-paced acceptance of same-sex marriage in the United States and in Europe has many in Africa believing—with no shortage of fear—that the change in public opinion in many Western societies will somehow move to this continent.

“African countries are places where people adhere to very traditional religious values, and they are uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex relationships,” said Roland T. Wallor, executive director of the Research and Documentation Center on Human Rights here in Monrovia.

To add to that, Wallor said, many African leaders resent the fact that the United States has started to include as part of its commitment to economic aid insistence that African nations abide by acceptance of its gay citizens as a human rights issue.

“Leaders are very angry about that, and they react by trying to show Americans that they cannot be influenced by threats regarding aid,” he said.

But that is precisely the proper role for the Obama administration to take. And the president would be wise to continue to use his bully pulpit to encourage African leaders, especially Museveni and Jonathan, to revise their policies. The fact of the matter is that the world is changing and the laws that have been passed only serve to deny basic human rights that are protected and accepted in much of the rest of the world.

President Barack Obama should continue—and even intensify—his push on leaders in Africa and elsewhere to become part of the 21st century. And he should use all of the power of the United States and its economic largesse to drive that point home.