In Summary
  • On its part, the Nigerian legislation carries penalties of 14 years imprisonment for persons participating in, promoting or soliciting homosexual relationships.
  • The Ugandan bill proposes life imprisonment for homosexuality, rather than the death penalty which was originally intended.
  • The enactment of the new laws has drawn condemnation from many Western countries including the United States, whose President, Barack Obama, termed the Ugandan legislation “odious”.

Africa is having an unprecedented debate on homosexuality, driven by the passage late last year of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill by the Ugandan parliament, which was followed by the enactment, last month, of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill in Nigeria. Both bills forbid same sex marriage.

The Ugandan bill proposes life imprisonment for homosexuality, rather than the death penalty which was originally intended.

The bill prohibits homosexuality not only in Uganda but also for Ugandans living abroad and includes penalties for individuals, corporations, media organisations, and non-governmental organisations that know of gay people or support their rights.

On its part, the Nigerian legislation carries penalties of 14 years imprisonment for persons participating in, promoting or soliciting homosexual relationships.

Here in Kenya, the debate on homosexuality recently received a major infusion of interest when the well-known author, Binyavanga Wainaina, went public about his homosexual status.

Before the passage of these new laws, homosexuality was already a crime both in Uganda and Nigeria, where laws inherited from British colonial rule classify it as “unnatural sex”. Also, out of the 53 African states, homosexuality is a crime in 38 of them, including Kenya. Only South Africa prohibits the discrimination of homosexuals.

DRAWN CONDEMNATTION

The enactment of the new laws has drawn condemnation from many Western countries including the United States, whose President, Barack Obama, termed the Ugandan legislation “odious”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pillay, have also expressed displeasure at the legislation.

While the West and the UN have condemned the latest anti-homosexuality legislation, they have remained silent on the fact that other African countries have had similar laws in place for decades.

Two questions arise from this situation. First, why have Uganda and Nigeria enacted new homosexuality laws which appear to overlap with laws that have been in place in these countries for years? Secondly, why is the West so sensitive to these new laws when it has been silent on similar laws that have existed for years?

One possible explanation lies in the fact that the sexual minority movement has become increasingly assertive, particularly in the West, where its members have won important concessions from governments, which now recognise gay rights as human rights.

Here in Africa, activism on gay rights is still relatively weak and, with the exception of South Africa, Uganda and perhaps Zimbabwe, most African countries do not have discernible demands for the recognition of gay rights.

In most African countries, the legal prohibition of homosexuality was achieved at a time when there was wide social acceptance of the label of “unnatural sex”. Starting with the West, and now spreading to Africa, the correctness of this label is under increasing challenge.

The old laws cater for a closet homosexuality culture and are no longer good enough for an age when the practice is fighting for open expression and even official recognition.

GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENTS

In Uganda, therefore, the new laws can be understood as an act of official backlash, based on concern over the potency of the gay rights movement in that country.

In 2011, Ugandan human rights activist, David Kato, was murdered in his home, for being gay, after being “outed” by a local newspaper that went on to also expose other alleged homosexuals.

This macabre act underlies the fact that the gay community in Uganda has built a distinct human rights movement, as would call for this kind of backlash.

The interest that the West has shown in the African debates on homosexuality appears to have complicated, rather than assisted, the situation. The global debate on homosexuality is increasingly seen as a divide between a traditional and “backward” African continent, which has rejected homosexuality, on the one hand, and the liberal and progressive West which has embraced the practice, on the other.

Two Zimbabwean scholars, Lovemore Togarasei and Ezra Chitando, have asserted that as long as Western interventions reinforce “the perception that Africa is being ‘civilised’ or talked down to accept same-sex sexuality, it will remain extremely difficult to make headway in changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships.”

At one level, therefore, the actions by Uganda and Nigeria represent rebellion, by an increasingly assertive Africa, against what is perceived as paternalistic Western interference in their countries.

The US and the UN will need to find ways of expressing their concerns about the African homosexuality discourse which will not offend governments into the kind of hostile response seen in the two countries.

Away from these controversies, two things are beyond dispute. First, homophobia, of the kind that has motivated the Ugandan legislation, creates a dangerous and intolerant society, in which it becomes acceptable to kill people like Mr Kato.

If it is acceptable to kill people merely because they are gay, it easily also becomes tolerable to kill political opponents, and others we do not like, or agree with.

The Ugandan legislation criminalises not just the act of homosexuality, but also any discussion on this subject which is inconsistent with the views of those who brought the legislation.

Its extension to Ugandans abroad is an overkill, an act of extreme intolerance, calculated to ensure that only the world-view of the Ugandan legislature prevails. The bill assails several constitutional rights that have nothing to do with homosexuality.

Secondly, the achievement of critical public health goals in part depends on extending health services to the entire population, including gay people. Disparaging gay people only drives their health needs underground, undermining national health objectives.

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