Unraveling the crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in several African countries

Members of the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda during a peaceful demonstration advocating for their rights and equality. Screenshot from YouTube video, ‘LGBT activists disappointed at Uganda's new anti-gay law’ on Africanews. Fair use.

Despite global efforts to promote inclusivity and equal rights, several African nations have taken measures to crack down on LGBTQ+ communities, sparking concerns among human rights activists and international organizations. 

On May 2 this year, the Ugandan parliament passed a bill that leaves the LGBTQ+ community vulnerable to severe punishments, including imprisonment and capital punishment. In Ghana, in July, members of parliament unanimously voted in favor of amendments to the country's anti-gay legislation, bringing it closer to becoming law. Moreover, in Kenya, several politicians have openly expressed their support for bolstering existing laws targeting LGBTQ+ individuals. One Kenyan opposition MP is leading a campaign to further criminalise the country's LGBTQ+ community. In Namibia, the ruling party is threatening a Supreme Court decision that recognises same-sex marriage contracted outside the country. 

Many African countries inherited colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality and same-sex relationships. An example of these laws is “the anti-sodomy laws” of Bostwana. These archaic laws, often remnants of colonial rule, have persisted despite global advancements in LGBTQ+ rights. Governments may continue enforcing these laws because of the deeply ingrained belief that homosexuality is a foreign concept conflicting with traditional values.

Cultural and religious factors

Another reason for the crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights is deeply rooted in cultural and religious beliefs. Many African societies have conservative cultural norms and religious teachings that condemn same-sex relationships and non-conforming gender identities. These beliefs often influence policy decisions and contribute to the marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, in Kenya, a February ruling by the Supreme Court upheld verdicts by lower courts, stating that the government could not lawfully refuse to register an organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC). However, despite the court's conclusion that the constitution barred discrimination based on sexual orientation, President William Ruto and numerous religious leaders and political commentators have vehemently condemned this ruling. As reported by local media outlet Citizen TV, President Ruto expressed his disapproval, emphasizing his strong religious beliefs:

I am a God-fearing man, and regardless of the court's decision, our culture, values, Christianity, and Islam cannot permit women to marry each other or men to marry fellow men.

However, before colonialism, historical accounts suggest that numerous traditional cultures in African countries exhibited tolerance towards diverse sexualities and gender roles. One report proposes that ancient African societies, including the Egyptians, acknowledged and embraced same-sex relationships. These cultures even revered a third gender, often represented by androgynous deities and goddesses depicted with erect phalluses. In regions corresponding to present-day Nigeria and Ghana, the conventional binary gender system was absent. Gender categorization was guided by attributes such as energy and might also be deferred until a later stage in life. Notably, in northern Sudan, instances existed where daughters were provided with slave girls for companionship and intimacy.

Political expediency

Political leaders in some African countries may use anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation to bolster their popularity and divert attention from other pressing issues. By capitalizing on the conservative sentiments prevalent in their societies, these leaders can consolidate their power base and maintain public support.

This is what’s currently happening in Namibia. The recognition of same-sex marriages contracted outside the country led former Cabinet Minister and SWAPO lawmaker Jerry Ekandjo to table a private member's bill in parliament to define the word “spouse” in the Immigration Control Act. According to the newspaper The Namibian, Ekandjo noted that this is to “prohibit same-sex marriage, the solemnisation of same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriage in Namibia and to provide for incidental matters.” Although Ekandjo himself said that the administrative process of implementing the bill could take up to six months, it is already having an impact on the LGBTQ+ community.

A Namibian activist, author and tech entrepreneur, Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe wrote in an email to Global Voices:

The private member's bill already has an impact even without formalisation from the President currently reviewing it with the Attorney General who is vehemently homophobic. Notwithstanding the fact that the Queer community in general has always faced homophobic hostility from the government, in the media and through our courts.

Although Ekandjo claims that legalising same-sex marriage was against the norms and beliefs of the country's majority, that's not the only reason he's putting it on the agenda, as Nthengwe writes:

In the next six months, Ekandjo will use his position in parliament to gain momentum within the ‘ruling’ party. The end goal is not necessarily so obvious because Ekandjo is a veteran in the party who was excluded from the vice-presidential race. So he has a bone to pick and he has prowess to perform in order to gain political clout.

Fear of ‘Western imperialism’

The “promotion” of LGBTQ+ rights by Western countries and organizations is sometimes viewed with suspicion by some African leaders, who perceive it as hypocritical and a form of neo-colonialism or “Western imperialism.” In an interview with DW News, a former member of parliament and supporter of an anti-LGBTQ+ bill in Ghana expressed this sentiment:

If you come to Germany for instance, which is one of the most liberal countries in the world, polygamy is illegal. In Germany, not only is it illegal, you could end up with a fine and a jail sentence of up to three years. One would think and expect that a country as liberal as Germany or any other country in Western Europe in promoting human rights would also have people practice whatever they want to practice, but the reality is that every country is entitled to enact legislation or laws that promote the moral values of that particular country.

This perception raises concerns among some African leaders who fear that LGBTQ+ rights advocacy from Western countries and organizations is an attempt to impose foreign values and undermine their traditional cultural and moral beliefs. In a recent interview with NTVUganda, some members of the Ugandan parliament criticized the World Bank's decision to sanction Uganda over anti-gay law. They interpreted such advocacy as an infringement on their nation's sovereignty and cultural independence. In response to this fear, some African governments may adopt anti-LGBTQ+ measures to assert their cultural autonomy and protect what they perceive as their national values.

However, it is essential to distinguish between advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and imposing cultural values. Advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights seeks to ensure equality, protection, and human rights for all individuals, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is not about promoting Western values but rather universal human rights principles that apply to every individual regardless of their geographical location.

It is crucial to foster a nuanced understanding of LGBTQ+ rights advocacy that respects cultural diversity while upholding the principles of human rights and equality. Collaboration and dialogue between Western organizations and African leaders can help bridge the gap and address concerns. Effective LGBTQ+ rights advocacy in Africa should consider the cultural context and engage in respectful conversations to promote inclusivity and understanding.

In conclusion, as emphasized by Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe in an email to GV, mere queer visibility does not guarantee solidarity. While there may be groups that sympathize with the LGBTQ+ community, this falls short of creating meaningful change. It seems that the issues faced by the community are deeply connected to politics and the protection of constitutional democracy. 

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