Africa’s forgotten persecution and the battle for gay rights

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Uganda gay pride march

Africa’s forgotten persecution: The final frontier in the battle for gay rights

Gay rights became a new frontier in diplomatic relations between Western powers and African governments, with the US and UK warning they would use foreign aid to push for homosexuality to be decriminalised across the socially conservative continent. Recent developments, however, have meant that this promise has been abandoned and the world has turned its back on Africa’s LGBT community. In seeking to protect their own interests and nationals, western governments have condemned Africa’s LGBT population to a life of persecution and oppression.

Across Africa millions of people live in places that outlaw same-sex relationships and prosecute people for being gay. In five countries and in parts of two others, homosexuality is still punishable with the death penalty, while a further 70 imprison citizens because of their sexual orientation such as in August 2015 when seven men were jailed for six months in Senegal, after they were found guilty of homosexuality. [1] Despite the continents history of sexual persecution there has been a recent upsurge in discrimination. This is the result of what has been dubbed the ‘Evangelical lobby’ which is active across the continent in various forms. The UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign group co-ordinator, Godwyns Onwuchekwa, has spoken of how US Christian evangelical groups are increasingly active in Africa, leading to greater hostility toward gay people on the continent. “The evangelical lobby is very powerful and we know that they lobbied Uganda’s parliament in 2009 to introduce anti-gay legislation,” he said, referring to a private member’s bill – which was shelved after an international outcry – which called for the death penalty to be imposed for some homosexual acts. [2] In Nigeria the Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola was at the forefront of campaigns against gay rights with Mr Onwuchekwa stating that “the Anglican Archbishop has the support of US churches opposed to the ordination of gay bishops.” [3] The result of this lobbying effort was the further criminalisation of homosexuality in the country and the introduction of a bill in the Nigerian Senate which said same-sex couples entering into either marriage or cohabitation would face jail terms of up to 14 years, and those “witnessing” or “abetting” such relationships would also face custodial sentences. The Nigerian Senate is dominated by conservative Christian and Muslim MPs who use threats to cut aid to rally public support and to accuse the former colonial powers of interfering. In a country where thousands have been killed in sectarian religious conflict, one of the few thing that unites Christians and Muslims is the oppression of gay people with 87% of the population opposing gay rights. [4] The threat to cut aid has similarly failed in Ghana where President John Atta Mills rejected the UK’s threat to cut aid if he refuses to legalise homosexuality. [5]

International crises have provided a useful cover for the west to abandon its promise to Africa’s sexually oppressed. Terrorism is the form of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia, ISIS in Libya and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Mali and Algeria has allowed western governments to prioritise ‘good’ relations with African governments in the ‘war’ against terror over LGBT rights. Homosexual acts are illegal in most African countries, including key Western allies such as Uganda. Uganda receives military assistance to fight the local rebel group – the Lord’s Resistance Army – and has sent troops to Somalia to assist in the fight against Al-Shabab. This is just one example of why the west is so quick to abandon its commitment to gay rights. Without African troops, the west would have to use its own and Vietnam and Iraq have removed any desire to engage in protracted foreign conflicts. Political instability across the continent such as in Burundi and multiple other guerilla insurgency’s have reinforced this priority. Further justification for this shift in priorities has been the dilemma faced by western governments – Can they interfere in another countries domestic affairs?  This is especially problematic considering Europe’s history with Africa and the suffering that nineteenth century imperialism brought to the continent.

The answer to this questions is yes. Despite the historical legacy of imperialism the west must put human rights first. The past can be debated but it cannot be changed. Instead the west must focus on what it can rather than did do. If we are not willing to stand up for the persecuted then we are no better than the persecutors. Like Pontius Pilot, western governments seek to wash their hands of this issue by the use of foreign aid and more pressing issues. Throwing money at a problem and ignoring it does not make it go away. Instead the failure to acknowledge this persecution and place meaningful diplomatic pressure on African governments means that this persecution will continue, leaving the west with blood on its hands. Western governments would be wrong to cut aid if there is no reform of same-sex laws as it would just make it more difficult for gay people who will face a backlash and poor people who will suffer if aid is cut. Some countries such as Mozambique are moving in the right direction on LGBT rights but there is still much to be done across the continent. [6] Currently Africa’s LGBT population is paying dearly for the Wests broken promise. Human rights groups in Africa and the LGBT community cannot win this fight against persecution alone. The question that must now be asked is how many more must die before something is done to aid them?

Written by Nathaniel Robinsion



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