Fighting for equality in the West African country
Not a week goes by without a news report detailing yet another vicious attack on members of Africa’s LGBT population. These hate crimes are not confined to just a few African countries but can be found across the continent, even in progressive South Africa. Although in 2006 South Africa became the first, and to this day the only, African nation to legalise samesex marriage, so- called “corrective” rapes have become prevalent.
Rapes and other violent crimes are not uncommon in South Africa. However, “corrective” rapes specifically target lesbians, in an attempt to change their sexuality; the attackers believe victims will be “fixed” by the rape and become straight. Gangs of men usually commit these crimes and often transmit Aids and other diseases. Lesbians who live in Johannesburg’s affluent Sandton neighborhood will have a drastically different experience from those who inhabit one of Cape Town’s townships. Lesbians in poorer South African townships bear the brunt of these assaults and then are left to fend for themselves due to the lack of police – or the prejudice they face when reporting their injuries.
Nigeria has become a major economic power: the West African nation recently overtook South Africa to become the largest economy on the continent. But this rapid financial development has not been matched by progress toward social equity for the LGBT community. Being out and open in Nigeria is extremely difficult due to the many social, political and economic barriers, but courageous lesbian organisations that aim to address sexual and reproductive health concerns are emerging in the country.
Akudo Oguaghamba, executive director of the Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative ( WHER), is at the forefront of the call for equal rights for Nigeria’s LGBT citizens. “In the wake of the anti-homosexuality crusade, there have been a lot of push-backs in advocacy efforts. These negative reactions also toughened up LGBT activists in these areas, as our worst fears became reality and we are left with no other choice than to be strong and
ACTIVISTS IN THE WEST AFRICAN COUNTRY STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY AGAINST A TIDE OF VIOLENCE WORDS FINBARR TOESLAND
determined,” explains Oguaghamba.
“In Nigeria, after the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was enacted, a great deal of awareness was raised around LGBT rights and what it means to be a homosexual. We have continued to educate the Nigerian people carefully to understand that we are humans too and deserve to reach our full potential, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
While the LGBT rights movement over the past few decades has achieved a great deal of success in Western countries, the same cannot be said in Africa. There is no simple answer as to why gay rights in Africa have been so hard to attain, but the roots of modern-day homophobia in many African countries can be traced back to the impact of colonialism. Many of the 19th century British anti-sodomy laws were exported to the African countries that were part of the then British Empire, leaving a legacy of homophobia that has been difficult to erase.
Zimbabwe’s controversial president, Robert Mugabe, has scapegoated gays and lesbians for a range of problems the country is dealing with, has called homosexuality “un-african”, and has even claimed that colonists brought over this “immoral culture”. Of course, homosexuality is far from a colonial import and there is evidence dating back thousands of years showing that in Africa, as in anywhere else in the world, homosexuality is an intrinsic part of human history. For example, ancient cave paintings by the San people of Zimbabwe depict homosexuality, and Sudan’s Zande tribe saw lesbianism practiced.
Comments like those made by Mugabe sound outrageous and unbelievable, but unfortunately these views are widely held. A poll conducted by Noipolls in partnership with The Initiative for Equal Rights ( TIERS) and the Bisi Alimi Foundation in 2015 discovered that anti-gay sentiment in Nigeria is very high. One of the most disturbing findings was that 90% of Nigerians agreed with the statement “Nigeria would be a better country without homosexuals” and 87% held the opinion that “homosexuals should be imprisoned for 14 years for having a same-sex relationship or living together”.
Nigeria’s economic ascent, paired with stunning natural scenery, has made the country a promising travel destination. Nevertheless, lesbophobia is still a major concern for visitors traveling to Nigeria and has the potential to deter members of the LGBT community from experiencing this diverse nation.
“Because same-sex marriage, same-sex relationships and LGBT organising are criminalised in Nigeria, it is important for lesbians traveling through Nigeria to refrain from indulging in activities that will publicly brand them as lesbians,” says Oguaghamba. “In some parts of Africa, the situation might be anecdotally different, but the lived experiences end up being the same. I would advise that any lesbian travelling to any country in Africa consult the people on the ground to understand their context and also to have support on the ground.”
Rather than endorsing LGBT rights, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, recently signed the SameSex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which represents a considerable setback. This draconian piece of legislation not only outlaws same-sex marriage but also makes it a criminal offence for samesex couples to publicly display affection and to carry out LGBT advocacy. Some countries, including the United Kingdom, have threatened to cut aid to countries that actively discriminate against gay people. However, proclamations by Western nations calling for gay rights further propagate the widely held notion that homosexuality is a Western import.
Former President Barack Obama’s vocal support for LGBT rights on his 2015 visit to Kenya and Ethiopia also generated a defensive reaction from those on the continent who believe that the US is attempting to impose its cultural values on Africa.
“Change has to come from within African societies and be led by Africans. This is why it is so important to publicise, support and empower African LGBT activists. Training for African journalists in LGBT issues would help reduce media homophobia, which often stirs hate and violence,” says Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner and the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. “Churches also need to speak out against the victimisation of LGBT people, which is often driven by religiously motivated prejudice.”
Africans themselves are the only ones able to reverse anti-gay laws and change public opinion; however, this battle for basic rights is monumental. It is extraordinarily difficult for African LGBT activists to openly campaign for equal rights, as they are being targeted and their cause is being sensationalised by the media and homophobic mobs.
The Ugandan weekly tabloid Rolling Stone published photographs of 100 gay Ugandans in 2010, under the headline “Hang Them”. One of the people named in the article and pictured on the front page was David Kato, a prominent human rights activist who had received a number of death threats before the report was published. A few months after being named, Kato was beaten to death with a hammer in his home.
Clearly, this environment discourages many Africans from speaking out in favour of LGBT rights, and the situation is deteriorating. “In most African countries, anti- LGBT attitudes have worsened, and in Nigeria, Gambia, Cameroon and Uganda legal repression has intensified. This has hit all LGBT people, but lesbians have suffered particularly badly by being subjected to the brutality of corrective rape,” says Tatchell. “There is much ignorance, fear and hate toward lesbians in Africa. Men feel especially threatened by lesbian [and straight] women who have broken away from the shackles of often patriarchal traditional cultures.”
At the moment, it may seem impossible to overcome such pervasive problems and for gays and lesbians to live openly and freely, but the will of LGBT people in Africa remains strong. “There is hope – we have seen tremendous organising and coming out by gay and lesbian people in countries where even such deplorable conditions exist, such as Egypt and Ethiopia. There is strong organising in East and Southern Africa, which is a strong beacon that self- organising, self- determination by gay and lesbian Africans may indeed change the tide,” concludes Denis Nzioka, a leading sexual and gender minorities activist based in Kenya.
“As our worst fears become reality, we are left with no other choice than to be strong”