- 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.
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.