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Is the West’s aggressive push for LGBT rights in Africa really about human rights?

The West cannot resolve through bullying a problem of its own making

The tendency of some European countries and the United States of America to threaten sanctions against African countries that criminalise homosexuality has raised questions about whether this attitude is influenced purely by the sanctity of human rights or by other agendas. Many Africans believe that the West’s aggressive campaign for the rights of these vulnerable groups in Africa is merely a tool in the hands of bullies: one among many tactics used by the West to dictate what Africa should and shouldn’t do. My contention is that the West cannot resolve through bullying a problem of its own making. It is simply counterproductive.

Homophobia in Africa is a colonial legacy

Recently, Uganda was in the limelight for passing an anti-gay law. The new law criminalises not only those who engage in homosexual acts but even those who advocate for gay and other related rights. As far back as 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. This was against international criticism from human rights defenders, governments, and the United Nations. When condemnations surfaced this year, President Museveni was quick to denounce the bullying tactics of the West thus: “Western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people.”

In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years of jail term.  In Ghana, around 2020, a draft legislation suggesting up to 10 years imprisonment for LGBTQ people and those who advocate for their rights was drawn. Homophobia in Africa is evident.

As of 2022, about 68 countries criminalize homosexuality, the majority of which are from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Out of Africa’s 54 countries, 32 criminalize homosexual relations. In four of these countries, namely Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan, and Somalia, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty. Only 22 African countries do not criminalize homosexual acts. This is surprising because a brief historical enquiry of African societies before colonialism attests to the fact that Africa was not homophobic. Before European colonization, Africa did not demonise same-sex relationships; in as far back as 2400 BC in Ancient Egypt, the ‘third gender’ was acknowledged and even venerated.  Gender was never necessarily classified based on strict binaries. Today, however, the majority of countries that belong to the Commonwealth still have homophobic laws in their constitutions. This phenomenon is specifically common to countries that were under British colonial rule. France also used to have a homophobic law that stipulates castration as punishment for offenders, a law it abandoned only after the first French Revolution in 1750. Francophone African countries that still criminalise homosexuality consist of about 33% as compared to 66% of Commonwealth nations. So what went wrong?

Apart from being a vehicle of political and economic subjugation, colonialism also used Christian fundamentalist indoctrination, which uncompromisingly shaped cultural attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity. Homophobia was unapologetically enforced by both colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. Hence, Anti-LGBT laws were not only written into constitutions but were a key feature of the religion of the white ‘man’. After ‘independence’, these colonial and discriminatory laws remained in the post-colonial states’ constitutions. The colonial project was so successful that some African countries even conceive homophobia as part of their culture and homosexuality as a colonial import. For instance, the late former president of Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe labelled homosexuality as a “white disease”.  The association of homosexuality as a Western import has been evident in most ex-Commonwealth, especially in Africa and the Caribbean. Obviously, this misconception has to be reversed.

A bully knows no other way than bullying

Decades after the end of the criminal enterprise of colonialism, the bullies have returned, ostensibly to correct a problem for which they have refused to take responsibility. The European Parliament’s resolutions passed between 2014 and 2019 under the heading ‘The LGBTI in Africa – the briefing of the European Union’ constantly emphasised the importance of LGBTI rights on the African continent and passed several resolutions meant to protect the ‘persecuted’ LGBTI communities. As part of these resolutions, the parliament requested the European External Action Service (EEAS) to strengthen its strategies in countries where violence and abuse against LGBTI are most prevalent.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction against these European legislations in Africa has been equally radical. Aloy Ojilere in his paper ‘The Diplomacy of Homocapitalism against Africa: Same-sex Marriage and the West’s Promotion of Homosexuality’ argued that the practice of homosexuality and the legalisation of gay marriage seem to have become a Western obsession and cult. He went on to say:

“The West should not expect Africa to follow their every example and vice versa. The preparedness to respond respectfully with an open mind explains why Africa deems it unnecessary to insist that the West reverse criminal jurisprudence which makes polygamy unlawful and labels it a crime. African countries consider homosexuality and same-sex marriage as depraved and unacceptable features of contemporary “Western civilisation” which debase age-old African culture, morality, and religiosity and are therefore impossible to legalise. However, when and to what extent African countries aside from South Africa choose to reverse this position in view of the Western diplomacy of homocapitalism is a matter for the future.”

The West is unprepared to understand this resistance because a bully always believes their way is the only way. This is not surprising because that is how the West operates and has always operated. However, it must be made clear that Africa doesn’t need a ‘father figure’ or a know-it-all ‘demagogy’ in order to rehabilitate itself from colonial indoctrination, which birthed the present forms of homophobia; we are mature enough to go through the process without external interference. There is certainly a need to tolerate, understand and co-exist with those who are different from us, but we do not need a bully to be the custodian of that endeavour.


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