Pride and prejudice: how not to fight homophobia in Africa

It is simplistic to suggest that African homophobia stems only from colonisation.

The coverage of the recent conviction of two gay Malawians (subsequently pardoned) for homosexuality was dominated by western human rights activists' self-serving -- but ultimately self-defeating -- dismissal of African homophobia as "the desperate defence of western mores in indigenous clothing".

Writing in the Independent, the British activist Peter Tatchell, who is heavily involved in the Malawian test case, claimed that "the minds of many . . . Africans remain colonised by the homophobic beliefs that were drummed into their forebears by the western missionaries who invaded their lands". He reiterated this viewpoint on The Staggers.

To save the situation, Tatchell rallied the troops for a remedial invasion. "It is time to finish the African liberation struggle by ending the persecution of gay Africans," he declared.

The works of Marc Epprecht and Neville Hoad show that homosexuality and homophobia existed in pre-colonial Africa. Yet, ironically, western activists persist in challenging the prejudiced claims by some Africans that homosexuality is "un-African" with the equally prejudiced counterclaim that homophobia is "un-African".

The leading authority for this fallacy, which has been pontificated to the point of infallibility, is a 66-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It provides an accurate account of the colonial origins of most of the statutes that criminalise homosexuality in Africa today.

For example, Nigeria's federal sodomy statute remains identical to the original provision of the 1899 Penal Code of the Australian colony of Queensland.

However, it is a fallacy for HRW to conclude that "sodomy laws throughout . . . sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions", simply because "no 'native' ever participated in their making".

Different blends

Rich and varied systems of indigenous law, which are now collectively called customary law, existed in pre-colonial Africa. Customary criminal law applied wherever there was a political entity requiring the enforcement of certain standards of behaviour and imposing sanctions for their breach.

Although there was no single body of law that applied throughout the continent, a degree of basic uniformity of content existed over a wide range of matters, including the suppression of homosexuality, as was indeed the case among the rest of mankind.

Customary law was affected in many parts of Africa by Islam long before European colonisation. Thus, the British colonialists met different systems, ranging from relatively simple indigenous systems of social norms based on the family, the village, or group of villages, to the highly systematised and sophisticated sharia law of crime. Some systems blended customary with sharia law to varying degrees.

The fundamental feature of customary law was that it was unwritten. Although sharia law was written, it was and still is embodied in disparate rulings of jurists of the various schools. Therefore, the criminalisation of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa was not embodied in comprehensive codes.

However, a vast majority of Africans of all faiths and cultures are united today in their hostility towards homosexuality and this is a reflection of the similarity of the various systems of customary law to each other and to the foreign codes on the subject.

Customary law continues to regulate many areas of people's lives in Africa today. Though largely superseded by legislation, it still governs issues such as family relations. Also, where conflicting legislation exists, lack of access to legal resources and a general absence of the institutions of government may mean that, in practice, customary law still applies.

More significantly, customary law on issues such as homosexuality negates the enforcement of contradictory statutory law. This happens, for instance, in South Africa, where the legal recognition of homosexuality has resulted in a backlash against gays and their perceived assertiveness.

So the fact that the legislation which criminalises homosexuality is in apparent breach of the respective countries' constitutions, and international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which guarantee the right to privacy and prohibit discrimination (as held by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the courts in South Africa and India), does not necessarily mean that a change in legislation will end the persecution of gay people in Africa.

It should also be noted that some African constitutions guarantee the right to culture and oblige the courts to apply customary law in certain circumstances. Similarly, the African Charter provides that "the rights and freedoms of each individual shall be exercised with due regard to morality and common interest", and prescribes that "the promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognised by the community shall be the duty of the state".

Beyond legislation

As such, while current efforts to strike down the sodomy laws through the institution of test cases are an important step in the right direction, there is a need for a more informed and culturally aware strategy that goes beyond litigation and legislation.

Critical in this regard is an understanding of the various brands of Christianity practised today in Africa. These are, to varying degrees, a blend of Judaeo-Christian and African traditions.

HRW's claim that African Christians who oppose homosexuality appropriate "the most stringent moral anathemas of the missionaries' faith, along with an imported law against homosexuality, as essential bulwarks of true African identity", illustrates the sort of fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Africa that has undermined many well-intentioned western interventions.

Perhaps a more pragmatic way to serve the interests of gay Africans in the short term is to appeal to the humanity of a sufficient number of their brothers and sisters. This could reduce homophobia in the continent to a level similar to the one deemed tolerable in the west, where, as the Sun's poll after the David Laws story shows, homophobia remains rife.

Africa cannot afford to face this problem with yet another imported and, in its own way, blinkered attitude, which refuses to acknowledge the existence and influence of home-grown prejudice.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war