In August 2013, in his seventh inauguration speech, President Robert Mugabe was particularly derisive of the gay community. He urged young Zimbabweans to shun homosexuality as an abomination of humankind “that destroys nations, apart from it being a filthy, filthy disease”. That speech marked the conclusion of a presidential election campaign that hinged almost entirely on economic empowerment, but relied on an unhealthy dose of homophobia. Mugabe effectively used existing public disdain for homosexuality as a means to delegitimise the political opposition – with its liberal economics and politics – as part of the evidence that it was merely a puppet of the West.
I had travelled to Zimbabwe to cover what was meant to be a landmark election. The homophobic sentiment that seemed to underpin Mugabe’s campaign was unsettling. It was also, at that time, inexplicable to me. On further reflection however, a country where two thirds of the population live in rural areas, with a world view that revolves around land, livelihood and church, Mugabe’s move to highlight homosexuality was a stroke of political genius.
But Mugabe is certainly not alone in abusing the gay community for political gain. In January 2014, Nigeria signed a law that will punish anyone who promotes gay rights with a 10-year prison sentence. Elections are due there in the next 18 months… coincidence?
In Cameroon, gay people are often sentenced to prison for merely indulging in sex. In Liberia, a religious gathering has been collecting signatures pushing the government to sign a law banning same-sex marriage. In South Africa, the past five years have seen the rise of hate-crimes against gay people, including a phenomenon known as “corrective rape” – rape committed with a view to alter the victim’s sexual orientation. For many, the apparent surge in anti-gay sentiment is only a response to the pressure being put on African governments by western governments, to, ironically, “act a certain way”.
Even as economies continue to grow and middle classes emerge, rampant inequality burns holes in the aspirations of the continent. Where then does this leave the gay community? They’ve merely become a red herring, a distraction, to divert attention from the failing democratic culture among so many weak democracies across the continent.
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In truth, there is little demonstrable regard or patience for African homosexuals among wide swathes of the continent’s society. But plainly speaking, the issue of gay rights is not at the top of most African governments’ agendas. Why should it be? In so many countries on the continent, human rights of the barest minimum – water, sanitation, electricity – barely exist. Prioritising the rights of gay people is almost unthinkable. In fact, the pressure to do so from the outside has even forced some to invent notions of homosexuality as an imported, western concept, ie: “un-African”. Of course, gay Africans will dispute this, pointing out that history illustrates that this tribe here, and that people there, had established practices of homosexuality.
So to suggest that Africa has no place for homosexuals is to imagine the continent’s history as beginning when prude missionaries brought Bibles, long skirts and umbrellas as a marker of civilisation.
Struggling with the colonial past
The construction of sin and categorical notions of sexuality over the past four centuries on the continent are inextricably linked to colonialism, the Church and the ambitions of the state. And “independence” from the colonial powers, as it came, was a shame, for it often did little to inspire independent thought. If anything, the struggle for gay rights in so many African countries today tells us about a continent still battling the demons of colonialism, a continent that is still in the process of negotiating an identity – as articulated, again, through the lens of the colonial master. Among the greatest challenges many African democracies face today are the continued existence of one-party states and the lack of strong civil institutions.
And, in this vacuum, the Church is the most established institution outside the hallowed halls of party and state. Politicians know too well that decriminalising homosexual relationships at this point would only alienate them from the most dependable institution: religion. This is, of course, precisely the polar opposite of recent developments in the United States and the European Union. In those lands, once paved with gold and a love for all things good and equal, it is no longer “proper” to isolate or discriminate against any minority, despite what you might feel deep inside.
In the West, the erosion of the Church as the centre of the moral universe and its replacement with a cauldron of secular, civil institutions at the heart of public debate and influence means that there is always a shifting politic. And so, whereas African politicians might openly use hate-speech to garner votes, western politicians, or at least those who don’t obviously veer to the extreme right, must pretend with equal measure to love all. Both approaches are a means to an end – wielding power.
The recent emphasis on rising homophobia in Africa is disingenuous. It is a bargaining chip in order to hold countries to ransom. Homosexuality remains illegal in almost two-thirds of the 55 countries on the African continent. But targeting the trend of hostility towards gay rights in Africa is hypocritical. Even the US does not embrace gay rights universally; laws dealing with the full protection of homosexuals still vary from state to state.
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Like most issues on the continent, even where anti-gay laws exist, enforcement varies from one country to the next. Actions are determined by the mood swings of agencies, legislators and leaders. The fact is, protective laws themselves will not change the lived experience of gays in most of these countries, not in their current state, at least.
The case of South Africa
Take South Africa, for example, where progressive laws are the envy of the civilised world – but the lived experience of the poor and the marginalised, including those gay people not living in a boutique studio in downtown Cape Town, suggest that, without adequate social transformation, there is little assurance that these laws will be respected. Homosexuality has been legally protected in the country since 1996 while same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006. Yet, the disturbing notions of African masculinity, mixed with the myth of what it means to be “African” overrides the constitutional rights of gay people. In the face of disenfranchisement, there is a selective abstraction in how the gay community fits into the larger paradigm that is post-Apartheid South Africa.
Between the pomp, glory and loss of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in December 2013, many South Africans spoke of Mandela’s “mistake of allowing abortion and gay rights” to consolidate under the umbrella of human rights during his term in office, as if any community could remain second-class citizens after the struggle against Apartheid. Mandela’s enthusiasm for reconciliation, his insistence that no minority suffer in a new South Africa, meant that he had to transcend his own biases to offer protection to a community that appeared otherwise destined to remain repressed.
He understood, then, even before the western world did, that when it came down to dignity, there could be no such thing as first world laws. Mandela appears to have been rather alone in that understanding, and therein lies the quandary of visionless African leadership. Whereas most African countries have outlawed same-sex relationships as part of old colonial “public order” acts that have never been changed, the move to specifically target homosexuals, the way Nigeria and Uganda have done, effectively legitimises homophobia. And in so doing, it washes away our actual history, and creates a new one for us, just as colonialism bid us to do.
Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera, covering Sub-Saharan Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @azadessa
This article is an abridged version of a column that appeared in the February edition of Kindle Magazine.