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Depicting anti-gay laws in Africa as anti-colonialism is misleading

Africa has many strategic battles to fight; this is not one of them

In George Orwell’s political classic, Animal Farm, the pigs that were lording it over other animals had a standard question to silence any grumbling about their privileges (such as drinking milk from fellow animals and eating apples): “Do you want Jones to come back?”

Mr. Jones was the human farmer that the animals had overthrown in a revolution and since the animals did not want a return to human rule, their answer to the question was always a definite “No”, and the pigs continued exploiting the ordinary animals unchallenged.

In the context of politically and economically troubled African countries, there lurks a great temptation to invoke the bogey of ‘Mr. Jones’, who obviously is colonialism – an evil that was supposedly defeated six decades ago. And some political groups would always like to pick the low-hanging fruit of homosexuality as the channel for the return of alien domination in Africa. Needless to say, these anti-gay campaigns might reveal a reality we have avoided contemplating: colonialism is our lived reality.

Ironically, the fight against gay people by the African political elite actually produces the same effect they (claim to) seek to avert: entrenched dependence. This is because it can divert African countries from the more urgent business of economic emancipation and in the process alienate “development partners”, the very colonialists that we fear would dictate our economic policies. One obvious fallout of aid cuts is a significant deterioration of a country’s budgetary process, which would end up making Africa eat humble pie and perhaps even invite ‘Mr Jones’ back to directly manage the central banks, national treasuries or even the tax collections, depending on a given country’s level of vulnerability.

Naturally, colonialists who support a country’s programmes and budget cannot ignore new legislations that either offend their taxpayers or oppose their political jihad loosely termed human rights advocacy. For example, Uganda’s recent passing of a harsh new/updated law against gay activities has raised concerns locally that should the US respond by withdrawing or trimming its $ 1 billion annual stipend to Uganda, the country’s one million HIV positive people would face certain death, since half of Washington’s annual cash donation to Kampala is used to buy antiretroviral medicines. It is alright to proclaim one’s independence from the rooftops, but it would make sense to do so after you have developed the capacity to meet your own basic obligations like the provision of critical, life-saving health services.

The above scenario is not completely imaginary because the traditional donor countries themselves are facing a few financial problems, and they would welcome an excuse to spend more on their own problems. There is, for example, a proxy war to fight in Eastern Europe and, besides, traditional currencies like the US dollar are facing competition as the de facto international medium of exchange from the Chinese Yuan, which big economies like Saudi Arabia and Russia now prefer to promote. This means that the US may not remain the big spender and any excuse to cut spending would be gladly welcome. Anti-gay campaigns are one such excuse. The point is, if we are to engage in a confrontation with donor countries, maybe it should be on issues of strategic importance. Homosexuality isn’t, although it might appear as such to our politicians.

Interestingly, inadvertently or manipulatively, invoking anti-gay sentiments unites dominant ruling parties with their bitterest opposition critics. The latest anti-gay bill passed by an African parliament this March was moved by an opposition member of Uganda’s legislature and got 99% support from the ruling party legislators. Cultural and religious leaders will quickly jump into the fray to fight side by side with the politicians against the mysterious enemy who everyone is told is coming to mess up the famous order of nature, as happened in February after Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of gay people’s rights of association. Never mind that the religious leaders themselves are products of colonialism. The irony!

Homosexuals, unlike these priests, are not products of colonialism; they have always been present in African societies. And perhaps, Africans should draw inspiration from their ancestors’ wisdom in dealing with this matter. Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, captured this wisdom by stating its central tenets: “homosexuality has not been our problem and we don’t intend to make it our problem.”

In substance (and this is my interpretation of these tenets), we should neither promote nor criminalise homosexuality with legal instruments. Criminalization does not make sense because it invites our governments into the bedrooms of consenting adults and popularizes homophobia.

Promoting homosexuality with legal instruments also brings its own problems as it provokes the kind of backlash against homosexuals that we see today in our societies. It gives the impression that we are one step closer to attacking the foundation of marriage as seen elsewhere. Hence, the wise option would be to delay or avoid these debates, which frankly do not constitute pressing matters for Africans.

Most importantly, in the context of anti-gay proposals, the ensuing debate puts important items off the top of the legislative agenda as the leaders focus on the “matter of national importance” which some even say poses an existential threat to their beloved continent. This is preposterous. Africa has many strategic battles to fight, and this one, which is framed in a misleading narrative, is not one of them. Let Africans by all means continue cherishing their values about sexuality and other things, but they need not be manipulated through propaganda.

“Mr. Jones” never left, by the way!



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