Long seen as a fringe societal taboo far from the realm of African politics, homosexuality is emerging as a hot-button issue throughout much of the continent. Kenya, East Africa's economic hub, joined the trend in late November when Prime Minister Raila Odinga told supporters in the Nairobi slum of Kibera that he would order police to arrest gays.
"We will not tolerate such behavior in the country. The Constitution is very clear on this issue, and men or women found engaging in homosexuality will not be spared," Mr. Odinga said in Swahili, in comments that were taped by several news organizations. "Any man found engaging in sexual activities with another man should be arrested. Even women found engaging in sexual activities will be arrested."
The statement – which brought cheers in the Kibera slum – has created a sharp divide between Christian conservatives, who argue that homosexuality is against religious laws and "the law of nature," and human rights activists, who argue that stigmatizing any minority is illegal. It serves as the latest example of an outlook driven by the growing political assertiveness of powerful Christian churches that bolster existing social stigmas against gays.
"Normally, we judge a country's development by its tolerance of minorities," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. "We've seen this same issue come up in Uganda, in Zimbabwe, in Malawi, where gays are assaulted, arrested, jailed. Anything like that, the prime minister should condemn, but instead, he's encouraging it."
Ms. Kabeberi encouraged the prime minister to retract his statement, if only because Kenya's newly enacted Constitution does not, in fact, make homosexuality illegal. (Kenyan law merely states that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.)
If the statement was Odinga's attempt to become popular with Kenya's powerful churches, she adds, "the wrath of the civil society is going to make him wish he wasn't popular on this issue. He should be urging Kenyans to be tolerant, instead of himself being intolerant."
While recordings of Odinga's speech have been made public online, Odinga's spokesman Dennis Onyango issued a statement saying that Odinga was misquoted.
Odinga said he intended to clarify that the Constitution was not, as alleged by opponents, going to legalize same-sex marriages.
Yet even this statement stops short of retracting the statement attributed to Odinga of calling for the arrest of gays.
A regional trend
In Uganda, where homosexuality is already illegal under British colonial-era laws, the parliament briefly debated and then withdrew a proposed bill that would have imposed lengthy sentences, and in some cases the death penalty, for homosexuals.
In Malawi, an openly gay couple was convicted in May under a colonial-era law banning "unnatural acts" and sentenced to 14 years in prison, before international pressure prompted the government to set the sentences aside.
And in Kenya, as the country prepared to vote last summer in a referendum to establish the new Constitution – an attempt to prevent a return of the leadership crisis that followed ethnic clashes after the December 2007 elections – it was conservative Kenyan churches (urged on by the Pat Robertson-funded American Center for Law and Justice) who opposed the Constitution, arguing incorrectly that the new Constitution would have legalized abortion and same-sex marriages.
Wanyeki Muthoni, executive director of the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission, says that the tumult over homosexuality is the result of three converging trends.
First, Kenyan gays are becoming more politically active and vocal, lobbying hard for "basic equality and nondiscrimination." Second, the global debate over the ordination of gay priests, increasingly accepted in Europe and the United States, has caused a conservative backlash here in Africa, with African churches largely rejecting those reforms. Finally, African churches have been radicalized by what Ms. Muthoni charges is "the ever-increasing influence of homophobic American Evangelicals in Africa."
For Kenyan gays, Odinga's statement means tough times ahead.
"Harassment has been going on. Yesterday, two people were arrested by cops for homosexuality; three people were arrested the day before, but they managed to get out of jail," says Zawadi Nyongo, an independent social justice activist. "I have been receiving hate mail myself, through e-mail, and I'm not even on the front lines."
"We're all baffled by this," she adds. "How can a government that is trying to help people to get tested for HIV and to seek treatment, how can thatsame government talk about arresting gays?"