Recently, international media coverage has told us that Africa is the most homophobic continent in the world. This is a tricky position to be in as in the contemporary world being ‘gay friendly’ seems to be the ultimate measure of goodness. Accordingly, all the world’s missiles are now trained at Africa’s homophobia. And an easy target it is too. From cancelling state visits to threatening aid cuts and pulling businesses out of the continent, the west has not minced its words when it comes to the consequences of passing antigay laws. Uganda and Nigeria, both of which have been in the news for anti-gay legislation, are now the poster-boys for African homophobia.
Last week the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan passed his country’s own anti-gay law and immediately became a hero to millions of Nigerians (and other Africans) by refusing to bow to the liberal whims of the west. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, by contrast, showed himself to be a weakling after his failure to follow the ‘brave’ footsteps of his brother.
International voices have been, rightly, firm in condemning Africa for its attacks on gays. The vigils and protests from London to New York, the Netherlands and beyond have let Africa’s homosexuals know that they are not alone.
But where are the vigils for other human rights violations on the continent? The emergence of Africa’s ‘new’ homosexuality problem did not make its other decades-old issues disappear. An unacceptable number of women on the continent still die while giving birth, abject poverty is still the order of the day and quality health and education are but mirages the continent’s children can only dream of. So, where are the vigils for the dying women and children? For the household slaves and for the man who has to share his dose of ARVs with his wife?
Or has the world become so used to these pictures of African misery that they can no longer be bothered to pay attention (beyond periodic mumbles of disapproval). It seems to me that gay rights are a scapegoat for both local governments and the international world that has failed to solve these realities. And now, haunted by their own consciences, they are looking for a new African issue to latch on to.
In Uganda, parliament passed the antigay bill just days after passing a law banning women from wearing miniskirts or anything considered sexually provocative. But the objectification of Uganda’s women did not gain anywhere near the attention the antigay bill received. Here, patriarchal culture and lackluster laws have combined to make abuse of women – from rape to polygamy and domestic violence – a normal occurrence. It seems that suddenly other human rights violations are taking the back seat and giving way to the more exciting gay issue. African governments know that to buttress their domestic popularity they must be seen to fight this ‘evil’, while the west must be seen to condemn such bigotry.
No doubt gay people in Africa face unique challenges. The threats, torture, death and alienation of homosexuals are real enough. And the recognition of gay rights would be a big leap for human rights on the continent – if Africans can respect the rights of homosexuals then they can respect anyone’s rights.
But the gay issue is fast blurring the bigger African picture and governments are taking advantage of this to bury other issues as the world runs after the anti-gay bones they toss out every now and then. This game of catch with the international world is one Africa’s presidents have learned to play with great success. After the antigay law in Nigeria, all we hear about now are the rising attacks on gay people – never mind the looming insecurity that affects everybody, the wanting health care system and corruption.
In Uganda, Museveni has managed to have his cake and eat it. By refusing to sign Uganda’s antigay bill, he appeased the international world while still reinforcing hate through his reasoning – homosexuals are desperate misfits who need help, not legislation. Radical evangelical Christians, sanctioned by insensitive governments, are taking advantage of desperation and confusion to further fuel the hate and preach doom for homosexuals. Now, Africa has descended into a praying continent – one where flimsy morality is more important than solving the numerous ills affecting its people.
With or without antigay laws, there is still a lot to be done in Africa in the realm of human rights. While gay rights are important, Africa cannot be defined by her homophobia. Gay, straight, bi, queer or transgender… the beauty of human rights are that they give everyone a single label – human being.
Unfortunately, a lot of human beings in Africa are homophobic. But I shudder to think that Africa could be at a point where all a leader has to do for a previous short-coming to be cast aside is to show some sympathy for gays. Vetoing an anti-gay law will not change a dictator into a democrat or revive a failing economic system. Neither can passing an anti-gay law create much needed employment or heal the sick.
After importing homophobia into Africa through colonial laws, we cannot let the west impose on us a preoccupation with it at the expense of other violations. It would be like the colonial times again when we let them bring in their God and our own one died as we worshipped theirs.
Patience Akumu is a freelance journalist. She lives in Uganda.