Acccording to the BBC, Malawi’s new President, Joyce Banda — who took power after her predecessor died of a heart attack — has announced her desire to overturn a ban on homosexual acts. I had been wondering whether Obama’s statement might have an impact on African governments, and obviously it’s hard to infer whether or not there’s a connection (there is no mention in the article). She may also be acting out of concern for aid conditionality.
But the timing does make me wonder.
She will undoubtedly face pushback from conservative members of society, but Malawi stands to be the first African country since the onset of the post-apartheid era in South Africa (1994) to act with greater tolerance and concern for human rights for gays.
When you’ve ruined a country, blaming other people is definitely an appealing political strategy: low cost, and often pretty effective. Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe played this tired song once more at his recent 88th birthday party in Mutare…
NGOs come with these stupid ideas, some to destabilise us. Quite often they support one party. We say to them get away from our country. Leave us to solve our political problems. Leave us to manage our own systems (see Mail & Guardian).
He also had a few choice words for the growing international pressure to recognize gay rights:
Please, young men and women, you don’t have the freedom for men to marry men and women to marry women. You have the freedom for men to marry women. That’s God’s freedom. That’s what created you and me.
And not surprisingly, the culmination of a speech knocking down these other actors was a plea for “unity” of the Zimbabwean nation…
We used to fight each other. Time has come for us to do our politics in a much more cultured way. Although our differences are ideological and sometimes quite negative, we should not regard them as a source of hatred.
Apparently, about 20,000 people attended the old crocodile’s celebration (Mail online), but in a country with massive poverty and fear of state-sponsored beatings, it’s easy to understand why an individual would show up for some free food and cake.
More anti-gay bills in West Africa… Jewel Howard Taylor, former wife of former Liberian president Charles Taylor is using her time as Senator in this war-torn country to advance a bill that would make same-gender sexual relations a felony. If convicted, such a crime would warrant punishment ranging from 10 years in jail to death.
And Nobel prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has remained silent on the issue.
The issue continues to heat up owing to the pressure of the U.S. and the U.K. to consider gay rights as human rights over the past year. According to the AFP,
A few weeks after the United States in December announced it would consider gay rights when handing out aid, the Movement in Defence of Gay and Lesbian Rights in Liberia began to push for the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
This was roundly condemned and the leaders of the movement — none of them gay — were mobbed and had to be rescued by police when they tried to campaign at a university campus.
The U.S. gives quite a bit of aid to Liberia. The question is whether we will put our money where are mouths are and actually cut back assistance because of this issue, even as American influence on the continent wanes in the face of massive Chinese investment. Would such a stance fly well with the American electorate? There may be mixed support for gay marriage, but I’m pretty sure that a healthy majority of Americans would recognize death-for-sodomy as a massive human rights violation… and since enthusiasm for foreign aid is not so high to begin with, there would not be much backlash were the U.S. government to tighten the screws. The bigger question would be whether the Liberians would simply tell us to take a walk and highlight their rights to “cultural sovereignty.”
Kim Dionne writes about the anti-homosexuality bill being re-tabled in the Ugandan parliament, highlighting the strategic use of anti-homosexuality as a basis for ending partisan conflict.
Meanwhile, lesbian students were suspended from school in Kenya as reported by The Standard. (This video is worth watching — the principal blames the poor performance of the school on lesbianism…)
The rise of homosexual scapegoating reminds me of Anthony Marx’s argument about the implementation of institutionalized white supremacy in South Africa and Jim Crow in post Civil War United States. In order to “bind the wounds” between English and Afrikaner in SA; and North and South in the U.S., blacks got the raw deal in both places. In East Africa, despite the threat of donor pressure, a similar strategy seems afoot for what might be analogous to the 20th century “color line.” Apparently, gay is the new black.
Recently, I posted about the UK’s moves to apply pressure on African countries to be respectful and to protect the human rights of all people, irrespective of sexual orientation. And in recent weeks, Secretary Clinton has signaled that the Obama administration is going to do much the same.
It’s a bold foreign policy move, and it’s generating a lot of heat, especially in Uganda, which receives a ton of foreign aid. On the one hand, today’s NY Times op-ed from a Ugandan activist (Gay and Vilified in Uganda – NYTimes.com) provided a powerful portrait of what homosexuals face in their country. But President Museveni has tried to shift the agenda away from gay rights to the “universal” need for economic development. Meanwhile, this clip
from Ugandan news (after about minute 1:00), reports on a meeting of Ugandan ambassadors from around the world discussing how to promote a better image abroad. At the meeting, Acting minister of Foreign Affairs, Okello Oryem, says Uganda will “not tolerate acts of sexual abuse perpetrated on minors and other vulnerable people by homosexuals in the name of practicing their gay rights.” Typically, the Ugandan government has done everything possible to be the darling of the aid community, but on this social issue, they are angling for a real standoff.
This week, the BBC reported on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that aid recipients should protect human rights, including the humane treatment of homosexuals. It launched a discussion of what could become a new form of aid conditionality long practiced by donor countries, but more typically in favor of the adoption of certain types of economic policies and governance structures.
Of course, there is a touch of bitter irony in the demand — while a full 41 of 54 commonwealth countries have laws banning homosexuality, in most cases these are legacies of British Imperial law.
In various African countries, leaders rebuffed the proposal.
From the Ghanaian Minister of Trade and Industry, Hannah Tetteh:
Our society does not accept the practice of gays and lesbianism
A Zambian government spokesman said they will not enact pro-homosexuality laws to get British aid. And in Uganda, the proposal caused a “fury.”
This may emerge into one of the great North-South values clashes in the years to come. While democratic practices have often been attached to loan conditions, virtually no leaders have taken the public stance that they actually oppose democracy, even if they undermine the institution in practice. In the case of homosexual tolerance, however, given low public support, leaders are taking stark and uncompromising positions, and some countries are looking to toughen their approach rather than the reverse.
(See my recent post about the extent of harsh treatment towards gays around the world, especially in Africa.)
The heat generated by the issue of gay rights in America is just barely lukewarm compared with what one finds on the African continent. In an article on same-sex marriage in Portugal a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times provided this graphic:
which shows 10 sub-Saharan countries with penalties of 10 or more years of prison time for gay male relationships (and many other countries have less severe penalties, let alone widespread informal discrimination). Only in South Africa — where actual treatment of gays varies widely throughout the country — is gay marriage legal.
The interesting news this week is Morgan Tsvangirai’s bold statement that he would support gay rights in Zimbabwe were he to become president. In the BBC story and interview, not only did Tsvangirai reverse his 2010 statement on the issue — agreeing with Mugabe’s view on the matter — but he proclaimed that this was a “human right.”
For some time, I have been trying to find the time to do some systematic research explaining cross-country variation on attitudes and policies towards gays… and I am still trying. In the meantime, I would love to know what led Tsvangirai to make this statement — one that is clearly not going to score him any important political points at election time next year.
For some time now, I have been contemplating writing an article about the negative attitudes people hold towards homosexuals all around the world. The picture is improving, but it is still pretty bleak. When I was about to go through passport control in Kenya a few weeks ago, I could hear the television, but I wasn’t paying much attention, until I heard the line blurted out, “I AM NOT GAY.” And the next day, here were the headlines:
Turns out, Kenya was going through a process of vetting supreme court nominations, and a question had been raised about the sexual orientation of one candidate. As far as I know, there is no law against being a gay high court judge in Kenya, but obviously that wasn’t going to fly. More generally, I rarely go a month without reading some African news report of new laws being proposed or implemented concerning bans on “homosexual activity,” or of some violent act being committed against someone who was gay or thought to be gay. Obviously here in the U.S., the issue is far from resolved, but the level of hostility is several degrees of magnitude more intense in most African countries. I would be curious to hear if anyone has any good theories about why hostility towards homosexuals is so much worse in poor countries, and especially in Africa?
I am about to start a family holiday, and I don’t expect to post again for a week or two…