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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This election is about Brexit - don't kid yourself otherwise

The phrase "taking back control" will come under scrutiny like never before. 

Politicians always say that general elections are important. Usually they say they are “the most important for a generation”. But this time, when they say that they are right.

This election is about power, and about Brexit. It is about the right to negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and to try to shape our relationship with the rest of the world.

But it is also about the right to try to shape our country’s future at home. Because the way Britain works right now is simply not accepted by millions of people. That is the lesson we all should have learnt from last year's referendum.

The message in the referendum was clear enough: British citizens wanted to "take back control". But the meaning has been lost in interpretation. It has become a caricature of itself.

The Brexit vote has been taken to mean that we are a nation obsessed with repatriating powers from Brussels and keeping immigrants out. And yes, it's true that these are the elements of control which many people most readily turn to when asked. Do a quick, surface-level canvass of voters, and you may well take away that message ­– and that message only.

But keep listening, and you will hear something else. You will hear people yearning to gain some purchase on the places where they live, and the forces which shape their lives. You will hear people desperately seeking some way of taking control over the things that matter to them – their work, their homes and the prospects for the people they love.

Even among those who voted Remain last year, almost half think big business and banks have too much control over them. And at least three-quarters of all voters feel they have little or no control over Westminster, their local council, public services, even their own neighbourhood. When faced with that level of malaise, you have to question whether Brexit will deliver the control which people so clearly want.

The dominant narrative would have us believe people are delighted that our long-held protections – in the workplace, in the market, of the air that we breathe – are all up for barter through Brexit. Anything for the parody of control offered by leaving the European Union. In reality, we cherish these rights. The control we seek does not involve throwing them away.

We want real control. That means building power in our workplaces, where new technology is combining with the old power of capital to leave ever more people at the mercy of forces beyond their control. It means greater influence over where we get to live, in the face of a vicious housing market which continues to deny so many of us a decent, affordable place to live.

 It means taking control in our local communities, which are so often overlooked by top-down efforts at regeneration. It means taking control of our essential services like energy, rather than allowing six giant companies to dictate terms to everyone. And it means taking control of our financial system, so that banks can start to serve the public interest and not just their own.

This election is about Brexit. Anyone who pretends otherwise just isn't paying attention. But ask people what they really mean when they say they want control, and you may be surprised by the answers you hear back.

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

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