A Charm Offensive Against AIDS

Published: February 20, 2012

SOWETO, South Africa — Shortly after Michel Sidibé became executive director of the United Nations’ AIDS prevention agency, a court in Senegal sentenced nine gay men, all AIDS educators, to eight years in prison for “unnatural acts.”

In one of his first moves as the new chief of U.N.AIDS, Mr. Sidibe flew to Senegal to ask its aging president, Abdoulaye Wade, to pardon the men.

Mr. Sidibé, the son of a Muslim politician from Mali and a white French Catholic, asked the president — who is married to a white Frenchwoman — if he had ever suffered discrimination.

“Oh, Sidibé, you have no idea,” came the reply. “And for not marrying a Muslim.”

“Then, Uncle,” Mr. Sidibé said, using the African way to politely address an older man, “why do you accept that men here are put in jail for eight years just for being gay?”

Mr. Wade thought about it and promised to call his justice minister. Shortly afterward, the charges were dropped.

Asked if his predecessor — Dr. Peter Piot, a Belgian and one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus — could have gotten the same results, Mr. Sidibé said, “Without doubt, it would have been more difficult. It would be very automatically perceived as ‘the white people moralizing to us again.’ Since I’m African, I can raise it in a way that is less confrontational.”

Asked about that, Dr. Piot laughed and agreed, saying he sometimes thought his African missions, like those of the U2 singer Bono, “felt like a junior Tanzanian economist and Hugh Masekela coming to Washington to scold Congress for its budget deficit” — with Congress having to grin and bear it because it needed Tanzania’s cash.

Mr. Sidibé, 59, is a former relief worker, rather than a physician, and, along with English and French, he speaks West African Mandingo, the Tamashek of the Tuaregs and other languages.

With a combination of bonhomie and persistence, he has delivered difficult messages to African presidents very persuasively in his three years in office: Convince your men to get circumcised. Tell your teenage girls not to sleep with older men for money. Shelve your squeamishness and talk about condoms. Help prostitutes instead of jailing them. Ask your preachers to stop railing against homosexuals and order your police forces to stop beating them. Let Western scientists test new drugs and vaccines, despite the inevitable rumors that Africans are being used as guinea pigs.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to Michel,” said Dr. Piot, who hired him away from Unicef. “I was at a conference in Ethiopia in December, and for the first time, I felt I was hearing ‘ownership’ of AIDS by African countries. They weren’t talking so much about the donors, but about it as their own problem. I think he had a lot to do with that.”

Thanks, in part, to Mr. Sidibé’s intensive lobbying, South Africa and China are rapidly revising their approaches to the epidemic, and he hopes Russia and India soon will too. And the notoriously conservative African Union has created a committee to help populations it previously ignored: homosexuals, prostitutes and drug abusers.

Mr. Sidibé is from so deep in Africa that his professional career actually began in Timbuktu, helping Tuareg nomads. (His grandfather, he said, was a Fulani nomad in the same desert.)

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