From the closet to the clapper

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

On Tuesday June 4th, Britain’s House of Lords—a bunch of reactionary old codgers, for the most part—passed a bill that would legalise same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom.

This was by no means a foregone conclusion and the vote was preceded by two days of intense debate. But the final tally was in favour of the bill by a stunning margin of two to one.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the House of Representatives in Abuja—another bunch of even more reactionary elder statesmen—had also passed a bill on the subject of gay rights. On Thursday May 30th, the House overwhelmingly confirmed, in case anyone was in any doubt, that in Nigeria there is no such thing as gay rights.

Although homosexual acts are already illegal (punishable by 14 years in prison in most of the country and death by stoning in northern provinces governed by sharia law), the new bill explicitly makes same-sex marriage illegal. It also criminalises all homosexual relationships, any person that “aids or abets” a same-sex marriage, and all public protest in favour of gay rights. Convictions carry a ten-year prison sentence. The new bill requires only President Goodluck Jonathan’s signature to pass into law.

These examples illustrate a disturbing but unmistakable trend: whereas Europe and North America provide more and more protection for homosexual rights, in Africa the opposite is true: being gay is dangerous and becoming more so.

Africa as a continent is unique in its persecution of and discrimination against homosexuals. The law speaks for itself. There are no countries in Europe where homosexuality is illegal (and eight where gay marriage is recognised at a national level, not including Britain); in North America, just two (Belize and Jamaica); in South America, just one (Guyana), as well as only one in Oceania (Solomon Islands).

In Asia the situation is considerably worse: 18 of 45 countries outlaw homosexuality, with sentences ranging from jail time to death (mostly in the Middle East). But homosexuality is not illegal in either China or India, meaning that most Asians live in countries where legislation against homosexuality is not on the books.

The same cannot be said for Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in a staggering 38 of 54 countries, including the continent’s three most populous countries, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt. This is not, remember, where homosexuality is simply frowned upon or discriminated against; it is where legislators have passed laws (or in many cases, failed to overturn colonial-era laws) that make homosexuality a serious crime with serious consequences.

As the Nigerian example illustrates, there is little talk among lawmakers of improving recognition for gay rights. Instead when gay rights come up, it is all too often in the context of making laws against homosexuality even harsher. 

The verdict from the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)—which compiles the statistics on the legal situation in each country— was damning. “Over the last ten years, the focus on equal rights, law reforms, community cohesion, diversity, families and migrations for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) Africans has gone from bad to worse,” the organisation concluded in its 2013 annual report.

“By far, it’s the continent with the worst laws on the books when it comes to homosexuality and other sexual minorities, a phenomenon which is in part rooted in bad colonial-era laws and political situations, religious autonomy, strong negative belief in cultural and family values, and the evil of patriarchy.”

Other international human rights groups have echoed these concerns. Amnesty International, for example, recently issued a special report highlighting the deteriorating respect for gay rights in sub-Saharan Africa: “The continued criminalisation of consensual same-sex conduct in 38 African countries is a serious cause for concern,” the report said.

“The last decade has witnessed efforts in some sub-Saharan African countries to further criminalise LGBTI individuals by ostensibly targeting their behaviour, or to impose steeper penalties and broaden the scope of existing laws.”

But the law is not the whole story. Sometimes, even where homo- phobia is not codified, general atti- tudes towards homosexuality can have a similarly pervasive negative impact on the freedom to be openly gay or even to support gay rights.

Take Burkina Faso. Though this West African nation has no laws against homosexuality, it is still a difficult place to be gay. Some public figures have come out in the last few years, but the subject is still largely taboo. Gay people report being stigmatised, rejected, or hiding their practice. Gay rights organisations struggle to find a safe meeting place for members and are also hamstrung by a lack of funding. “The main challenge for the LGBT community in Burkina Faso is the attitudes of the general public,” said the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency in a 2011 briefing.

It is worth noting, however, that sometimes the general public can be more accepting than the legislators who represent them. Uganda has attracted copious negative international attention for the government’s on-again, off-again plans to introduce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would impose even harsher sentences on homosexual acts than exist currently in Ugandan law. As it stands, homosexual acts carry a seven-year jail term in Uganda. Under some versions of the proposed new law, the death penalty could be imposed on anyone who commits or promotes homosexual acts. 

Still, there is a buzzing gay scene in Kampala—even if it is furtive. Rahul Rao, an academic from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, specialises in African gay rights issues. He has made two field trips to Kampala to further his research. “Indeed, there are many positive signs of LGBTI ‘progress’,” he toldAfrica in Fact in an e-mail message.

Mr Rao’s message described kuchu (a Swahili-derived term that refers to Uganda’s LGBTI community) bars that keep changing locations to avoid police clampdowns, or in one case a hostile landlord, karaoke nights and talent shows. “There is quite a lot of pushing of the envelope going on, which is in itself quite remarkable and evidence of improvement, even if it does have to deal with disruption from conservative official and quasi-official sources,” he wrote. “These are important signs of change.” 

Unlike laws, which are easy to assess, the absence of much hard evidence makes figuring out what African people think about gay rights difficult and mostly subjective. Gallup conducted one of the few continent-wide surveys that even tangentially addresses the issue. The polling firm asked respondents: “Is your country a good place to be gay?” Most said “no” (more than 50% in every country surveyed, including South Africa; and more than 90% in most).

International efforts—coming mainly from Europe and America—to pressure African governments to increase protection for gay rights have achieved little. US President Barack Obama raised the issue on the very first day of his African trip in June. He told Senegalese President Macky Sall that the law should treat all people equally, regardless of sexual orientation. Mr Sall’s response was typical: he disagreed, noting that his country was “not yet ready to decriminalise homosexuality”. 

Britain’s approach is even more robust, with Prime Minister David Cameron vowing to cut aid money to countries that do not respect gay rights. Britain has ostensibly followed through on this threat, cutting aid to Malawi in 2011 by $30m in apparent reaction to the jailing of two gay men who had held an engagement ceremony.

However, it was never clear whether the aid cut was about gay rights or Britain’s very personal diplomatic spat with the late Malawian leader Bingu wa Mutharika. Cutting aid to other countries has not been mentioned, even though there is no shortage of candidates.

Britain’s stated position elicited a strong reaction from some African leaders —all of it critical. For example, John Nagenda, adviser to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, said that Mr Cameron showed an “ex-colonial mentality” and a “bullying mentality”, according to a BBC report. African politicians often dismiss gay rights as a Western indulgence, an insidious attempt to undermine African society with non- African values.

The colonial jab is deeply ironic, for in many cases British colonialists drafted the anti-homosexuality laws still in place in African countries. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than half of the world’s sodomy laws are relics of British colonial rule. Scholar Deborah Amory of the State University of New York wrote a widely-cited paper published in 1997 exploring the roots of homophobia in Africa.

She notes that homosexuality has a long history in Africa, whereas homophobia—at least in its current, aggressive strain—is an imported phenomenon, brought to Africa by missionaries and colonial administrations. “Virulent homophobia may be the real Western perversion at work here,” Ms Amory wrote.

In some cases, politicians espouse homophobia more because it is expedient than out of deep-seated convictions. Again, Uganda is a useful example, as Mr Rao explained: “Most informed observers now seem to think that Uganda’s anti-homosexual bill is a convenient smokescreen brought out at key moments to distract the world’s attention from other pressing and grievous crises of governance, including scandals over the siphoning off of aid money, pension funds, and the relative non-discussion of contracts surrounding drilling for oil in areas of natural conservation.”

In this context, the openly critical and confrontational approach adopted by Western countries to tackle the gay rights problem in Africa might not be particularly effective—the bigger the fuss, the bigger the smokescreen. “I would say the first obligation of the international community (powerful states, donors, international organisations, NGOs, etc.) should be ‘do no harm’; think very carefully about whether public ‘naming and shaming’ statements might be counterproductive insofar as improving conditions,” Mr Rao advised. “Quiet, behind the scenes diplomacy is probably much more successful, even if it reaps little electoral reward.”

The quiet diplomacy option is at least worth a try, because nothing else is working. There are a few notable exceptions, such as South Africa. Even here seemingly endemic incidents of violence against homosexuals undermine this country’s progressive constitution and legislation. Africa remains the worst place in the world to be gay. 

By Simon Allison

Simon Allison is the Africa correspondent for the Daily Maverick, based in Johannesburg.He has previously reported from Egypt, Palestine and Somalia for the Asia Times and Agence France Presse. He holds a BA from Rhodes University and a master’s degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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