Africa’s forgotten persecution: The final frontier in the battle for gay rights


Gay rights has become a new feature of diplomatic relations between Western powers and African governments, with the US and UK warning they would use foreign aid to push for homosexuality to be decriminalised across the socially conservative continent. Recent developments, however, have meant that this promise has been abandoned and the world has turned its back on Africa’s LGBT community. In seeking to protect their own interests and citizens, Western governments have condemned Africa’s LGBT population to a life of persecution and oppression.


Across Africa, millions of people live in nations that outlaw same-sex relationships and prosecute people for being gay. In five countries, and in parts of two others, homosexuality is still punishable with the death penalty, while a further 70 reserve the right to imprison citizens because of their sexual orientation. For example, in August 2015, seven men were jailed for six months in Senegal after they were found guilty of homosexuality. Despite the continent’s history of sexual persecution, there has been a recent upsurge in discrimination. This has been initiated by the ‘evangelical lobby’, which is active across the continent in various forms. The UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign group co-ordinator, Godwyns Onwuchekwa, has spoken of how US Christian evangelical groups are increasingly active in Africa, which has led to greater hostility towards gay people on the continent. "The evangelical lobby is very powerful and we know that they lobbied Uganda's parliament in 2009 to introduce anti-gay legislation," he said, referring to a private member's bill (ultimately shelved after an international outcry) which called for the death penalty to be imposed for some homosexual acts.


In Nigeria, the Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola has been at the forefront of campaigns against gay rights. In reference to Akinola’s agenda, Mr Onwuchekwa stated that “the Anglican Archbishop has the support of US churches opposed to the ordination of gay bishops.” The result of Akinola’s lobbying effort has been the further criminalisation of homosexuality in the country and the introduction of a bill in the Nigerian Senate which says that same-sex couples entering into either marriage or cohabitation would face jail terms of up to 14 years, and that those "witnessing" or "abetting" such relationships would also face custodial sentences. The Nigerian Senate is dominated by conservative Christian and Muslim MPs who use the threats made by Western powers in order to rally public support – accusing former colonial powers of interfering. In a country where thousands have been killed in sectarian religious conflicts, one of the few thing that unites Christians and Muslims is the oppression of gay people, as 87% of the population oppose gay rights.


International crises have provided a useful cover for the West to abandon its promise to Africa’s sexually oppressed. Terrorism in the form of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia, ISIS in Libya, and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Mali and Algeria has allowed Western governments to prioritise the ‘war’ against terror over the war for LGBT rights. Homosexual acts are illegal in most African countries, including in key Western ally states such as Uganda. Indeed, Uganda receives military assistance to fight the Lord's Resistance Army – a local rebel group – and has sent troops to Somalia to assist in the fight against Al-Shabab. Without African troops to fight terrorists, the West would have to use its own. This is just one example of why the West has been so quick to abandon its commitment to gay rights - in order to smoothen relations with African states.


Indeed the dilemma faced by Western governments – whether they can legitimately interfere in another country’s domestic affairs – has halted the progress towards homosexual equality in Africa. Yet, despite the historical legacy of imperialism, the West has a moral obligation to put human rights first. The past can be debated, but it cannot be changed. Instead, the West must focus on how it can help the continent in the future. If we are not willing to stand up for the persecuted then we are no better than the persecutors. Western governments seek to wash their hands of this issue. However, the failure to acknowledge persecution and place meaningful diplomatic pressure on African governments means that oppression will merely continue, ultimately leaving the West with blood on its hands. Some countries such as Mozambique are moving in the right direction on LGBT rights, but there is still much to be done across the continent. Currently, Africa’s LGBT population is paying dearly for the West’s broken promises. Human rights groups in Africa and the LGBT community cannot win this fight against persecution alone. The question that must now be asked is how many more must die before action is taken to aid them?


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