“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
It is certainly apposite to reflect on Thomas Jefferson’s words in light of a bill that is currently being reintroduced to Uganda’s parliament. Parliamentarian David Bahati is attempting to see the passing of a bill that would impose punitive measures for committing “homosexual offences”, as well as punish anyone who fails to report to the authorities a person they know to be homosexual. The maximum sentence for homosexual offences would be life imprisonment. The original draft, proposed in 2011, included the option of capital punishment for ‘serial offenders’ (although this term was never properly defined), but has been removed from the current draft.
The bill has received plenty of popular support in Uganda, traditionally a very conservative country. Homosexuality is already criminalised under its penal code, and is largely stigmatised, especially by religious groups.
The bill’s reintroduction comes at a time when the international spotlight has focused on gay rights in Africa. Malawi, Nigeria, Liberia, Zimbabwe and Senegal have all been criticised for anti-gay policies of differing degrees of severity. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has even publicly reprimanded African nations for treating gay people as “second class citizens or even criminals”.
It is very easy to castigate African (and other) governments for pursuing these policies, which will undoubtedly tyrannise the lives of many ordinary people. Such admonishment is worthless, however, if the goal of Western governments is to improve the de facto plight of gay people on the continent. We need to interrogate why such policies are springing up, and what informs them.
Around the world, opposition to gay marriage and similar rights seems on the surface to be informed by fear. Clerics in Uganda, for example, have cited homosexuality as a threat to traditional ways of life. This resonates with the motivation of Proposition 8 proponents in California, who sought to ban gay marriage in the state. Worldwide, opponents of gay rights have argued that the nuclear family and traditional marriage will be jeopardised by the ‘scourge’ of homosexuality. Quite where they find the evidence to back up this claim is unknown.
Added to the confusing morass of anti-gay motivation is the further dimension of Western aid donors such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and United States threatening to cut aid to countries that codify anti-gay principles. US president Barack Obama has openly criticised such policies, and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has threatened to withdraw aid from countries that are seen as encouraging discrimination against gay people.
Gay rights campaigners around the world welcomed these threats by aid donors, although we have yet to see such a policy implemented. African nations, understandably, have bristled at these warnings. With many African government budgets reliant on Western aid, critics argued that cutting aid based on a pro-gay agenda would harm the poor and ultimately do more damage than good. Despite what appear to be noble efforts to protect gay rights in Africa, the West’s approach has alienated recipient nations and only proved to further complicate the donor-recipient relationship. African countries have always been sceptical of foreign interference in domestic affairs, particularly intervention by former colonial powers. Post-colonial Africa is still fundamentally suspicious of the intentions of former colonisers, in some respects for good reason. The West needs to understand this dynamic better, and realise that it will not secure Africa’s cooperation by proselytising. Many African states see such moralising as perpetuating outdated colonial relationships. African clerics in Uganda, for example, see homosexuality as something introduced and encouraged by West; threatening to cut aid unless gay rights are protected only entrenches this belief.
Indeed, it seems that old colonial battle lines are resurfacing. The issue of gay rights on the continent can be viewed as the manifestation of an inherent cultural divide: Africa does not want to be lectured by its former colonial masters (as well as other states who patronisingly claim to be acting in its best interests). The waters of this debate are further muddied by the fact that the very same countries that are threatening to cut aid to Africa for anti-gay policies have not threatened to do so to Islamic nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, which by and large espouse similar policies towards homosexual activity. Such inconsistency could be understood as the trumping of the West’s interests in those regions (e.g. oil, security interests in Afghanistan) over any evangelising spirit. This has only further estranged African nations. The West’s legitimacy in this regard has been severely compromised, and the pro-gay rights agenda has suffered as a result.
Despite the West’s loss of legitimacy, however, any bill or law that actively discriminates against someone on the basis of their sexuality is wrong. On the whole, Africa is failing its gay citizens. Even South Africa, the only country on the continent to legalise gay marriage and constitutionally protect the right to freedom of sexual orientation, faces major challenges, as evinced by the torture and murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana. A 19-year old lesbian not afraid to hide her sexual orientation, she was stabbed and stoned to death by four men in Cape Town in 2006. Her murderers received 18-year prison sentences, but this arguably does little to address the root problem of intolerance.
What is particularly curious about the spate of anti-gay legislation proposed in Africa is its apparent disconnect from the ideals of purported African renewal. It is unexpected that a continent with such a history of oppression and subjugation should choose to ignore the rights of a minority. Such homophobia sits uncomfortably next to the ideals theoretically espoused by what the Economist newspaper recently deemed the rise of ‘the hopeful continent’. As revealed by the case of Proposition 8 in California, where voters themselves decided to ban gay marriage, the majority should never be given the opportunity to preside over the fate or rights of a minority. Which begs a controversial and perhaps even conspiratorial question: are African elites trying to distract their populations from more pressing issues, such as development, education, land redistribution and housing in their respective countries? In traditional societies, the issue of gay rights is undoubtedly very provocative, and the flames of intolerance can be easily fanned. Are elites using the issue to bolster support in the face of dire non-delivery? It is very easy, as Robert Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe, to galvanise support in the name of defending the country against an evil former colonial master. Indeed, the recent case of Nigerian legislation prohibiting gay marriage illustrates this perfectly. Despite the fact that homosexuality is already outlawed in Nigeria, the bill was pushed through by parliamentarians amidst the height of tension between Christians and Muslims in the country in the wake of attacks by extremist group Boko Haram. The bill was largely considered to be pandering to the both groups for the sake of unity.
How, then, can activists secure real change? In order to make any progress, the entire debate needs to be reframed. As it stands, homosexual activity is viewed as detrimental to traditional lifestyles, and a threat to the fabric of society. Ultimately, gay rights and traditional notions of family are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the protection of gay rights is a civil rights issue, akin to the fight against racism, sexism, or xenophobia. Intolerance should not be accepted as the status quo. George Bernard Shaw reminds us that “Though all society is founded on intolerance, all improvement is founded on tolerance”.
Is the current wave of perceived homophobia in Africa informed by bigotry? Undoubtedly, prejudice forms part of the explanation. But it is not the only factor contributing to the phenomenon, and simply naming and shaming perpetrators of anti-gay policies is not going to help the plight of gay people on the continent. The debate must be reframed. Additional perspectives need to be considered when deliberating on how to understand and tackle this issue, as simply accepting the view that homosexuality is antithetical to entrenched African tradition will ultimately do the discussion a disservice.
As the tragic case of Zoliswa Nkonyana shows, the lives of innocent people are at stake.
By Lyndsey Duff, researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue