Why We Should Pay More Attention to LGBTQ+ Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

Image Source: Emily Leshner, AP // on NBC News

Security interests in Africa also exist outside of the strategic competition paradigm. Policymakers should be more involved in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the promotion of minority rights and democratic processes should be our primary motivation, not strategic competition. In the past two years concerns about “democratic backsliding” have been raised following several successive coups in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the loudest types of violence are insurgencies, widespread protests, and military coups, the quieter forms of violence, including violence against women and minorities are equally important indicators of healthy democracies. Homophobia and political repression usually occur simultaneously because the marginalization of minorities is the first step to democratic backsliding. Of the 69 countries that prohibit same-sex relations, 32 are in Africa. Meanwhile, same-sex relationships are still punishable by death in Mauritania, Somalia, and Nigeria, and according to a 2020 Afro barometer poll 69% of Africans did not want their country to do more for LGBTQ+ people. This reality is not one that Western actors should ignore, as the persecution of minorities harms human security, leads to democratic backsliding, and works against security interests on the continent.

In the past three months, Kenya has banned movies with LGBTQ+ content, and the Tanzanian government has warned against the online dissemination of LGBTQ+ messages and content. Uganda banned the Nyege Nyege music festival as it would negatively impact the country’s morals. In addition to the negative impact that these policies have on freedom of expression, cultural diversity, tourism, and economic growth, they represent the continuing state-led crackdowns on LGBTQ+ minorities. Last week, the speaker of Ghana’s parliament commented on the Family Values bill currently under review, stating, “that it is not within the customs of Ghana that people of the same sex have sexual relations.” If the bill becomes law it would criminalize same-sex relations and any attempts to protest or support LGBTQ+ rights. Laws like this one not only put basic human rights at jeopardy, but also pose challenges to freedom of expression and assembly, essential components of democracy. Human Rights Watch has already documented the systemic abuse, torture, and detention of LGBTQ+ people in Ghana. These developments will continue to weaken democracies on the African continent, while increasing the likelihood of violence. Indeed, as witnessed after the 2014 Nigerian Same Sex (Prohibition) Act resulted in the increase of harassment, extrajudicial killings and torture.

National leaders continue to exploit homophobia to target their political opponents in the name of protecting their electorate from “western interference.” However, in many ways, homophobic legislature is a remnant of colonialism. Prior to colonization, several African societies had conceptions of gender as fluid and same-sex relationships. Section 140 of the Ugandan criminal code, criminalizing “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” was inherited from the penal code of their former colonizer Great Britain. The British imposed their colonial penal code on their colonies to enforce their values, cement their control, and punish “perverse” sex. Today, the impact of colonial laws on homophobic policies in Africa is overlooked as the criminalization of same-sex relations is now used as part of an agenda by populist leaders to curtail civil freedoms, silence minorities, and strengthen their power. As Nelson Mandela once said homosexuality is not “un African but just another form of sexuality that has been suppressed for years.” 

So, what can the U.S. and its allies do? First, promoting LGBTQ+ rights should be understood within the context of strengthening social, economic, and political institutions. The repeal of the global gag rule, which forced NGOs to choose between American aid and providing sexual and reproductive healthcare, by President Biden was a positive first step. However, withholding economic aid, as President Obama did in Uganda in 2015 after an anti-gay law was passed, or threatening sanctions will not improve LGBTQ+ rights.  Aid conditionality and sanctions can actually endanger LGBTQ+ lives if they are blamed for U.S. policies. Indeed, men suffering from H.I.V. are often wary of seeking medical treatment in case authorities intervene. Furthermore, such efforts would strengthen the narrative that the West is trying to force its values upon African countries

As the new national security strategy highlights the U.S. government needs to “be responsive to the voices and focus on the needs of the most marginalized, including the LGBTQ+ community”. Hence, initiatives to support LGBTQ+ communities should follow the leadership of activists and grassroot movements. Increased advocacy and leadership from the African Union are also likely to be more effective in demonstrating there is nothing “un-African” about the LGBTQ+ community. African LGBTQ+ activists have called for a more discrete approach focused on education, so the U.S. and its allies could directly fund local NGOs and educational initiatives. LGBTQ+ activists in Africa have emphasized the need for improved organizational development, strategic planning, leadership skills, and training, which the U.S. could easily provide.  Finally, the Biden administration could expand refugee protections to permit individuals to seek asylum if persecuted for their gender or sexual identity

There is room for hope, in the past 3 years, Botswana, Angola and Gabon repealed their homophobic laws. But we cannot cross our fingers and hope that it will solve itself, especially because of the implications that diminishing LGBTQ+ rights carry for democracy. Though the West cannot impose LGBTQ+ reforms in Africa we can and should certainly support activists on the ground by listening to what they need, and not tying our aid to any strings. 

One thought on “Why We Should Pay More Attention to LGBTQ+ Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. Yes, let’s stick our noses into other cultures thanks to academic weenies who never fight the wars or deal directly with the misery of their idealistic endeavors. Time to realize mankind for what it is. Time to quit meddling in other people’s businesses and seeing the world and forcing it to western civilization values. And time for our liberal idealistic leaders to quit supporting their campaign sponsors who deal with these other national leaders behind the misery and injustices in the world. The problem lay in the very idealists and their leaders not walking their talk as Trump did. Word craft dies not end inhumanity, but raw in your face threats do knowing the world of some 50 years of adulthood I didn’t fighting and later Engineering across. America – live or fear, but only respected when we talk and act like men.

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