Old Problems, New Scapegoats

By Erica Anjum

Africa is a continent of profound diversity. Nonetheless, many African countries share something in common: most are considered “underdeveloped.” While there have been several theories advanced as to why, recently some African politicians have suggested that homosexuality is to blame for Africa’s problems.

Many African states have long had anti-gay laws in place, but for the most part, they remained neglected. However, 2014 witnessed the passing of new laws and the implementation of old ones in several states. For example, the Kenyan Penal Code defines “…carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature…”  as a felony punishable with up to 21 years of imprisonment. While this law has existed for decades, Kenya has only recently undertaken aggressive enforcement. Meanwhile, on January 7, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a new law prohibiting same-sex marriage. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni followed suit and signed a similar law into effect only a month later.

These laws go well beyond banning gay-marriage. For instance, in Nigeria, any show of love between two people of the same sex can now earn offenders up to ten years in jail.  In Uganda, the death penalty was originally proposed as a punishment for same-sex relationships. This was ultimately changed to life in prison before being passed. Moreover, authorities frequently deny bail to individuals arrested on charges of homosexuality.

Politicians and legislators are not the only ones expressing anti-gay sentiments. Animosity seems  widespread amongst the general public. For instance, Bauchi State in Northern Nigeria follows both the Western style penal code and Sharia law (by which sodomy is punishable with death by stoning).  Earlier this year in Bauchi, thousands of protesters gathered outside the trial of seven men who allegedly belonged to gay organizations. As the mob turned violent and began throwing stones at the accused, the judge halted the hearing and ordered the guards to return the defendants back to the safety of the prison.

Similar events have unfolded in many African countries, coupled with a growing focus on anti-gay laws. What explains the recent trend in targeting homosexual behavior?

Kwado Osei-Opare, a Ghanaian doctoral student in UCLA’s History Department, points out that it is important to remember that homosexuality is not new to Africa. Throughout history, African societies have tolerated, or at least ignored,  some forms of LGBTQ relations. The yan daudu subculture in northern Nigeria is one such example. Yan daudu translates to “men who act like women” and members have peacefully coexisted with the Hausa Muslim communities in the North for over a century. The recent legislation and social hostility has broken that peace. Osei-Opare suggests that Western colonial powers first introduced the labels and negative attitudes towards homesexuality currently prevalent. These norms were eventually institutionalized. He points out that, ironically, much of the international pressure on African Governments to protect gay rights now stems from ex-colonial powers.

One theory analyzing the current trend suggests that the recent expansion of anti-gay sentiment stems from a continuance of culture clash between Western and traditional African values. However,  the situation may not be that simple.

The recent wave of anti-gay legislation can also be viewed as an attempt to divert attention from the political, economic, and social issues national leaders have thus far failed to mitigate. In many of these states, while politicians have employed corrupt means to privately profit from national resources and revenues, the government has failed to deliver on promises to citizens for  better lives. For example, Nigeria has an abundance of natural resources, most notably oil. While such abundance  should improve the lives of citizens, profits from oil have primarily benefited a handful of elites. Politicians have lined their own pockets, sharing the wealth with a  few select supporters. Meanwhile, many Nigerians struggle to make ends meet. General awareness of  such practices have resulted in political leaders losing support and credibility over the years.

Within this context, advancing anti-gay laws have provided a way for politicians to distract the public from the problem of corruption and simultaneously rebuild a dying support base. For instance, Museveni’s support of the new anti-gay bill is one of his few actions that has garnered popular approval from Ugandans as of late. This strategy has enjoyed success because, unfortunately, despite their awareness of corruption citizens often have no power to increase government accountability and effectiveness. Lacking outlets, they focus their frustrations on other issues and sometimes lash out against each other. Political leaders have made the most of this. While they privately profit through corruption, leaders publicly express their opinions against homosexuality and sign laws into place. The LGBTQ community thus serves as the most recent distraction and scapegoat for problems that have long plagued many African states.

While some of the recent developments stem from endogenous factors, the clash between Western norms and traditional values have shaped events in important ways. Many Western nations have expressed alarm over recent developments.  The United States government has been fairly conservative on the topic: President Obama’s response has been limited to reiterating that Americans value equal rights for all. His administration has also set aside $3 million for organizations dedicated to protecting gay rights in other countries. Britain, on the other hand, has been much more aggressive.  Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared that Britain would begin to withdraw aid if African leaders  continued to support anti-gay legislation.

Unfortunately, such statements may have caused more harm than good. Although Cameron initially directed his statement at Ghanaian  President John Atlas Mills, leaders and citizens from many African states have responded in outrage. In an already tense atmosphere, Cameron’s statement has served as a rallying point. Some people care about the LGBTQ issues, but others are more perturbed by what they perceive as continuing Western interventionism and bullying. Many Africans have consequently interpreted Cameron’s statement as an attempt to superimpose Western values on traditional African societies and as an affront to national autonomy. Furthermore, African citizens and leaders have been especially critical of the fact that the same countries that are attacking African policies have failed to agree on these issues within their own borders.

There is a striking difference, of course, between unresolved debates over gay marriage (such as those ongoing in the United States) and discussions surrounding life imprisonment and the death penalty. The latter is viewed internationally as an affront to fundamental human rights. Despite national claims to autonomy, African states willingly participate as members of the global community. This membership can render many benefits, but it also entails a special relationship between national autonomy and international norms. Members are expected to adhere to internationally established guidelines such as human rights laws. At the least, each country may be subjected to scrutiny over how international norms are embodied within national politics.

In the face of such scrutiny, accusing Western states of cultural hegemony adds nothing of value to the argument. African leaders and peoples have complained in the past that even in the post-colonial era, they continue to be marginalized from world politics and treated as recipients rather than partners. If African nations wish to author a new story, they must  join the conversation rather than retreating behind stale  boundaries between western and traditional values.

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