David Cameron’s threat to cut aid to governments which do not uphold gay rights goes right to the heart of the West’s relationship with Africa. John Atta Mills, Africa’s quietest and most emollient president, immediately responded with a denunciation of British bullying. Ghana’s “societal norms” were different from those in the UK he said and added: “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalise homosexuality in Ghana.”
If Cameron can’t take Atta Mills with him on this, he is unlikely to win over many other presidents. Just as the British government is fighting desperately to maintain aid commitments when all other departments are facing cuts, they are finding it harder and harder to ‘push money out of the door’ as the aid slang has it. Direct Budget Support is the only way they can dispose of these huge sums. £2.9 billion of the £7.8 billion aid budget this year goes in direct support. Ghana gets £85 million. Little Malawi, which was to get £72 million, has had its aid cut because it expelled the British High Commissioner for making disparaging remarks about President Bingu wa Mutharika.
Since the end of aid conditionality, the rhetoric has been that the recipient government must ‘own’ the projects the aid money is spent on. That means it must really believe in using it effectively for development. But at the same time, the aid donor has of course already decided what it should, and should not, be spent on. When conditionality was in vogue the rule was that, ‘you can have this money as long as you spend as I tell you to.’ This was felt to be demeaning and disempowering for the recipient governments. So now aid is given under broader less enforceable agreements. But underpinning them is still an assumption that the aid will buy compliance from the grateful recipient government. This assumption is frequently wrong.
Recipient governments in Africa understand donor politics far better than donor governments understand the recipients. African governments also have more room for manoeuvre – not having to worry about opinion polls and a free press. They know the donors have to hit their targets, push money out of the door, and the channels are overloaded. So, more often than not, power is in the hands of African governments, not the Western donors. Cameron’s call will threaten them not one jot. It is more likely to unite most of Africa against him and he will have to back down. Only South Africa and Botswana will support him.
However, the almost universal moral abhorrence towards homosexuality in Africa is puzzling. There is plenty of evidence that it was accepted in many societies throughout Africa in pre colonial times. So is it the fault of the missionaries? But the missionaries also preached against theft and corruption, against sex before marriage, against marrying several wives or covetousness. Why do so many Africans get outraged and censorious about homosexuality, something that isn’t even one of the Ten Commandments, while tolerating so many sins that are?
I recently visited a gay African couple who live together in their jointly owned house in an African capital. They had just returned from their wedding – held in a country a long way from Africa. I walked through their front door into an exquisitely decorated room of high camp. How did they get away with it? They laughed. In most of Africa, they explained, homosexuality has been driven so far underground that most Africans simply don’t recognise what newspapers like The Sun call ‘those tell tale signs.’
Signs and actions have such different meanings in different cultures. It made me think of the first time I was in Africa. Many men held my hand, or in the case of Somalis my knee, when talking to me. I thought they were all gay!
Goodluck Jonathan and Brown Envelopes
The mystery of President Goodluck Jonathan continues. As Africa Report put it recently “There are those smiles, the trilby hats and above all is the seemingly effortless rise to the presidency of Africa’s most populous land. None of this seems to help understand the nature of Jonathan’s mission and its chances of success.”
I was hoping to learn more when I went to Nigeria to give the Annual Lecture on Independence Day but I met him only briefly on the podium. He seemed a straightforward informal man, not interested in the pomp or ceremony of the occasion. Everyone was very surprised that two foreigners (the other being the author Michela Wrong) and a Nigerian poet had been asked to speak on such an occasion. We were surprised that none of us were invited to actually to sit down with him or his advisers to discuss our ideas and suggestions in more depth.
Two recent incidents both involving brown envelopes send two conflicting messages about the President. At a recent closed meeting plain brown envelopes were included in welcome packs given to international investors and business representatives invited to meet the President. “Oh no” one told me, “a wad of dollars as a ‘per diem’ or some such nonsense.” But on inspection the envelopes contained a single sheet of paper. Participants were told to write on it the names of the three civil servants who the businessmen would most like to see sacked. This witty gesture seems to indicate that President Jonathan would like to remove the civil servants who persistently asked for ‘facilitation fees’ from visiting traders and investors.
The other incident occurred in a top level meeting where the President was complaining that a successful Nigerian company which had asked for government support to expand seemed to have been blocked. An official whispered in his ear and the President looked shocked and dropped the subject. It is understood that the message he received was that someone very close to him was asking for a fat brown envelope before the project went ahead. The project has not yet been supported.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society