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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser