John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Gay Rights in Africa

by John Campbell
December 7, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people from around the world in her "Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights" speech on International Human Rights Day at U.N. premises in Geneva December 6, 2011. (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters)

On December 6, in a presidential memorandum and a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva, the Obama administration announced that it will use all diplomatic means to promote gay rights around the world. In effect, the administration is trying to establish a new international norm, much as the Carter administration tried to do with respect to human rights.

In sub-Saharan Africa, homophobia is widespread. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, for example, have used it to whip up public support and to distract attention from bad governance. In Uganda, there is legislation under consideration that could include the death penalty for homosexual acts. In Zimbabwe, the Anglican Church’s alleged sympathy for homosexuality was part of the pretext for, in effect, the seizure of the property of the country’s largest church and for official castigation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Paradoxically, Mugabe’s attack has led to an Anglican revival in Zimbabwe—even though the population is probably as homophobic as elsewhere in Africa. (Notably, Mugabe’s chief presidential rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, has recently publicly supported gay rights.)

In nominally democratic Nigeria, Muslim and Christian leaders have called for additional laws penalizing homosexual behavior, one of which recently passed through the senate. The outlier is South Africa, where public gay pride parades are held in Johannesburg and Cape Town and discrimination based on sexual preference is outlawed. South Africa has among the most thorough constitutional guarantees of human rights in the world. But gay rights are a “white” issue, and homophobia is widespread among other racial groups.

There is African resentment at what some see as Western imposition of norms, and some will put the Obama administration’s new policy in that context –as the International Criminal Court has been because the cases before it all involve African figures. Nevertheless, as former president Jimmy Carter’s sponsorship of human rights shows, new norms can over time influence the behavior of governments.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    With all due respect, I think you are mistaken.

    Jimmy Carter’s sponsorship of human rights had widespread acceptance among African populations. The governing elite pushed against it, but it was popular.

    On the other hand, the African public does not support the Western concept of gay rights. This one of the few areas where the interests of the governing elite and the population intersect. And it will be milked for all it is worth.

    Nigeria may be “nominally democratic” but it is much more democratic than it was fifteen years ago. I.e. civil society plays a greater role today than it did then. So the US government really needs to understand that there is a public diplomacy component to its foreign policy in Africa.

    You cannot, on the one hand, claim to be seeking to reach out to Muslim populations in Northern Nigeria while aggressively promoting the rights of gays in Nigeria (which Muslims find abhorrent).

    You cannot claim to represent the American people on gay rights when a very vocal segment of the US population (as evidenced from the Republican Presidential debates) is opposed to this move.

    Your message will not sell because you still support Saudi Arabia (a nation where women are not even allowed to drive!). America spent trillions in blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan and was either unwilling or unable to even broach the topic of gay rights there.

    This policy will collapse under the weight of contradictions and inconsistencies in American foreign policy. America has too many interests in Africa to push this policy too aggressively. You are not going to risk your security arrangements with Meles Zenawi and Museveni or your lucrative energy deals.

    Small, economically insignificant countries like Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland will bear the brunt until they either learn to live within their means or fully leverage their economic relationship with China.

    This is just a cynical ploy by the Obama administration to encourage the LGBT community to come out and vote.

  • Posted by Zainab

    @Maduka: For the first time, I agree with you completely. This issue of gay rights is being unduly politicized. Ambassador Campbell should please note that over 95% or closer to 99% of Nigerians and Africans are completely against the legalization of same sex union. It completely contradicts all African moral, religious and cultural values. The Nigerian legislators are fully aware of this, which is why they passed the law banning same sex marriages. The law is a reaction to David Cameron’s threat in Australia last month of withdrawing foreign aid to African countries who do not support gay rights.If the legislators had done anything to the contrary and had not reacted with this decision, the public backlash would have been immense. This is one issue where Nigerians from all walks of life, despite their numerous ethno-religious differences are united on.

    Which leads to my next point. Since the legislators, for the first time acted in the interest of an overwhelming majority of Nigerians, isn’t this real democracy in action? Why is Obama, Cameron and other Western leaders hell bent on overturning what the Nigerian people want? Last week British and Canadian High Commissioners urged law makers to rescind their decision on the ban. Is the irony not glaring? These are countries that preach democracy with every breath yet they want the people’s decision in a sovereign country to be rescinded simply because it doesn’t please them?

    This is a very very wrong approach. It contradicts the stand of Western countries on democracy in developing countries. Now it is increasingly becoming clear that when it comes to Africa, it is democracy with conditions that is advocated for. I guess it is perfectly okay to impose completely alien, foreign and unpopular values on people who do not want it in the name of “human rights”. Now you see why African countries and their people are increasingly turning to China…for so many things.

  • Posted by othello

    The US Govt will find this an exercise in futility. Gay rights run contrary to the cultures of Africans. 99.99% of Nigerians can not comprehend the idea of gay relationships or marriage. Like Maduka rightly said, even a vast group of Americans do not agree with gay rights and same sex marriage, so why does the US government want to flush this down our throats? Turns out that there is no tolerance for the views of the vast majority of Africans. This may be a turning point in US-Africa affairs. People only call you a leader as far as they can follow you. we may begin to see the unraveling of US support among Sub-Saharan African Countries. The US must rethink its gay rights advocacy.African societies are deeply conservative and will resist it to the last village.

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