Anti-gay laws are political boon across Africa

Despite Western condemnation of Africa's harsh gay laws (including a World Bank freeze of $90 million to Nigeria) the legislation is popular and the sentiment is deeply rooted in the culture. 

Rebecca Vassie/AP
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni gestures after signing a new anti-gay bill that further criminalizing homosexuality and imposing strict sentences for aspects of homosexuality and on those who fail to report gay people to authorities, in Entebbe, Uganda, Feb. 24, 2014.

Uganda's president recently approved a controversial law further criminalizing homosexuality and imposing strict sentences for aspects of homosexuality and on those who fail to report gay people to authorities. The country is the latest in a series of African nations to toughen such laws. Here's a look at the range, and at reactions.

Q: Many countries in Africa are culturally conservative. Is homosexuality illegal throughout the continent?

There is no law against it in 16 of the continent's 54 countries, including Rwanda, Gabon, Chad, Cape Verde, Mali, and the Republic of Congo. In South Africa, same-sex couples have been able to adopt children since 2002, and have had marriage rights equal to those of heterosexual couples since 2006. The island nations of Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the Seychelles have promised to scrap laws against being gay. But more countries are moving in the other direction, inking new legislation further criminalizing homosexuality. According to Amnesty International, the 38 African countries that now outlaw being gay represent close to half of the 78 nations the United Nations says ban homosexuality worldwide.

Q: Where have the laws become more harsh?

Most recently in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni assented to the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 on Feb. 24. It imposes life sentences on people found guilty of repeated gay sex, and jail terms for "aiding and abetting" or "promoting homosexuality." Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria's president, signed into law a similar act in January that introduced 14-year sentences for gay marriage and 10-year terms for gay people seen kissing in public, or anyone operating or visiting a gay club or society. Liberia in 2012 toughened penalties for same-sex conduct. Burundi criminalized it for both men and women in 2009. South Sudan ensured gay sex was outlawed from the outset, criminalizing it in its Constitution at independence in 2011. In Mauritania, the Islamic north of Nigeria, and southern Somalia, a person can be sentenced to death for being gay.

Q: What has been the reaction to the new laws internationally?

Beyond Africa's shores, and especially in the Western countries that give the most aid to the continent, there has been near-universal condemnation of the new laws. Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands immediately stalled aid to Uganda over its new act. The World Bank froze a $90 million new loan. When Nigeria's president approved his country's new laws, the European Union warned he should not forget his "obligations" under international law.

President Obama said in 2011 that the United States would ensure that "diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons" around the world. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as secretary of State, said in a landmark speech in Geneva that "gay rights were human rights and human rights are gay rights," and that "being gay is not a Western invention, it is a human reality."

Q: What about the reaction in Africa?

It's dangerous to generalize for an entire continent, but on this issue it seems that there is a common popular majority feeling, and it is disdain for homosexual rights. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found only 3 percent of Ghanaians and Senegalese, 4 percent of Ugandans, and 8 percent of Kenyans said their societies should accept homosexuality. In Nigeria, 98 percent said it should not accept homosexuality, the highest ratio in the world, the study found. (Outside influence may be a factor. As the Monitor recently reported, human rights groups in Africa have long pointed a finger at visitors from US evangelical groups who have advocated against homosexual behavior and rights in some African states.)

Q: Is there a political reason behind the anti-gay laws?

It appears so. Anti-gay feeling seems to cross religious divides, uniting Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional faiths against homosexuality. This is despite evidence of acceptance of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa.

African presidents and politicians who back tough new laws against gay people earn support from voters both for being seen as safeguarding "family values" and for standing up to the West, which Uganda's presidential spokesman recently said was engaged in "social imperialism" by demanding gay rights in Africa.

This perceived "neocolonialist" aspect to the debate will make it extremely unlikely that Western demands to repeal the new laws will be heeded.

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