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All is not lost

Given the number of articles around on the prevalence of homophobia in Africa, it is time to try to give some perspective and historical context. In the last six months we have witnessed the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill; the arrest of gay Malawian couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, for getting married, and the appointment of homophobic journalist Jon Qwelane as South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda. Yet the protests against these events have been successfully internationalized by African LGBTI activists, many of whom have put their lives at risk to let us know what is happening. (For the best indepth and regularly updated commentary and analysis on Uganda, see Gay Ugandan.) 

The international response to the situation in Uganda has been impressive, though not, as this report shows, wholly reliable. Religious leaders, government ministers, international human rights organizations and bloggers have condemned the Bill. The outcry forced Ugandan President Museveni to retract the worst aspect of the Bill – the death penalty. However, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a piece of paper, and the pressure to drop the Bill completely will need to be maintained to counter events such as the ‘million person Anti-Gay march’ which is still planning to go ahead in Kampala on 17 February.

The Ugandan Bill has also exposed the working relationship between some Christian fundamentalist churches in the US – in particular the organization known as The Family – and religious leaders in Uganda. The ideology behind The Family appears to be about power and influence as well as religion – and the poor will not be the ones to inherit the earth if they have anything to do with it.

The case of the gay Malawian couple gives us an idea of what will happen if the Ugandan Bill is passed –  but it would be worse, much worse. The couple has been denied bail and if found guilty could face up to 14 years in prison. Last week I spoke with Cameroonian LGBTI activist Joel Gana of African Men for Sexual Health & Rights, who, along with Victor Mukasa of SMUG and  IGLHRC, was in Malawi to give personal and strategic support to Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza and a number of other human rights defenders who have been arrested or are wanted by the police.

Although there is no doubt a long struggle ahead for the couple, we were both reminded of the case of the Cameroon Nine, who were arrested on 21 May 2005 on charges of sodomy. After a 12-month campaign by human rights defenders and LGBTI activists across the continent, the men were released and acquitted without charge. As Joel pointed out:

‘The case in the Cameroon helped solidify the movement and this could happen here. The movement is not out but it could do the same. Because, you know, the organization in Cameroon came out of that movement to fight for the rights and that’s how the “Alternative Cameroon” was founded and why they are so strong now.’

There have been other victories over the past five years. Two Nigerian Bills – the Same Sex Marriage Bill and the The Same Gender Prohibition Bill – have been shelved, despite the backing of religious leaders such as the Nigerian Anglican Primate, Bishop Peter Akinola. This is not to say they will not resurface, especially if the Ugandan Bill gets passed, but preventing both of them from being passed was a victory for Nigerian and international human rights activists. In December 2008, after three and half years, Ugandan activist Victor Mukasa won his case against the Ugandan attorney general:

‘From the momentum created by the Ugandan LGBTI human rights court case, the numbers of people involved in advocating for the protection of the basic human rights of LGBTI people have continued to grow in Uganda. Although the 30-day “Let Us Live In Peace” Ugandan LGBTI human rights media campaign led by Sexual Minorities Uganda in 2007 was met with great controversy and hostility, greater awareness and understanding of the need for protection of the basic human rights of kuchus (homosexuals) was built among large segments of the general population. Publicity around one of the key aspects of the case – inhuman treatment and discrimination based on gender identity – has helped to foster openness and courage in many transgender individuals in Uganda.’

In September 2009, Eudy Simelane finally received a measure of justice after her murderer and rapist was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. However, two other men involved in the crime were acquitted on the basis they were there but did nothing, a judicial position which campaigners will be working towards changing. The campaign around the trial was not an easy one and was fought with very few resources despite the international media interest in the crime and trial.

Last December the Rwandan Government changed its mind on the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Following pressure from African and International LGBT organizations, Minister for Justice Karugarama declared:

‘The government I serve and speak for on certain issues cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality; sexual orientation is a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation – this is not a State matter at all.’

The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill remains in place. It will set a dangerous precedent across the continent if it gets passed on any level, let alone with the death penalty. It could influence and encourage those behind the Nigerian Bill as well as the governments in Gambia, Senegal, Malawi, Kenya and Zambia, which have all taken a draconian stance towards same-sex relationships in their countries. But it is also important to emphasize some of the victories African LGBT activists have achieved over the years – sometimes on their own and with few resources; sometimes with the help of international human rights organizations.


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