Everything you need to know about Africa's anti-gay crackdown

Uganda and Nigeria have launched campaigns to ban homosexuality and throw gays in jail. Why now?

Uganda protest
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Ben Curtis))

What is the goal of the new laws?

To criminalize homosexuality and "cleanse" these two countries' societies of gay people. In January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a new anti-gay law that mandates 14-year prison terms for anyone in a same-sex union and 10 years for anyone who "promotes" homosexuality, including HIV/AIDS workers. In February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed an even more draconian anti-gay law that provides for 14 years in jail for first-time offenders; those who commit "aggravated homosexuality" — repeated gay sex or gay sex involving a minor or someone with HIV — can get life in prison. The Ugandan law also pressures people to inform on their gay neighbors, because it is now a crime for anyone who is aware of homosexual activity to fail to report it. In signing the law, Museveni said he was defending the country from "arrogant and careless Western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality."

What prompted the new laws?

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Under legal systems set up by European colonizers in the 19th and 20th centuries, 38 of Africa's 55 nations have had anti-sodomy laws on the books. But those laws were rarely enforced until recently, and in many African cultures, casual homosexuality has been fairly commonplace. In the last two decades, the continent has undergone a resurgence of evangelical Christianity, propelled largely by American missionaries. Uganda has been a particular focus for Scott Lively, an American evangelical pastor who preaches that gay Nazis were behind the Holocaust and that gay men try to recruit children. In a 2009 presentation to Ugandan lawmakers in Kampala, Lively warned that Westerners wanted to undermine the Ugandan family and recruit children by spreading "the disease" of homosexuality. "They're looking for other people to be able to prey upon," Lively said. Ugandan rights advocates say the anti-gay movement owes everything to Lively's lobbying. "The bill is essentially his creation," said Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda.

Why did Lively's campaign succeed?

The theory that decadent Westerners are trying to pervert Africans meshed perfectly with the broader anti-colonial themes championed by many African politicians. Uganda's Museveni opposed the law at first, but with a re-election bid coming up, he changed his tune. The West, he said, was engaging in "social imperialism" by trying to force Uganda and other African countries to recognize gay rights through U.N. human rights treaties. This rhetoric echoes across many other African countries (but not all: See below). Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says homosexuality is a Western invention intended to "disturb the African moral fabric." Gambian President Yahya Jammeh called homosexuals "satanic." Even Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated Nobel laureate, has defended her country's anti-sodomy laws as "traditional values."

What effect do the laws have?

Gays are being arrested and being beaten by mobs. In February in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, a mob attacked and brutally beat and kicked a dozen gay men, nearly killing one man. They dragged four of the injured victims to the police station to be arrested for homosexuality, and there the police joined in the beating. Activists say Nigerian police have arrested gay men and tortured them into revealing the names of others. In Uganda, as soon as the law passed, one tabloid ran the cover story "Exposed! Uganda's 200 Top Homos Named," including photos; among those named were a hip-hop star and a Catholic priest. Many gay Nigerians and Ugandans are now trying to find asylum abroad. "Our clients here are terrified," said Jocelyn Dyer of Human Rights First, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents asylum seekers. "These laws are emboldening mobs, and the long prison sentences are making it harder to flee and get protection."

What is the public health impact?

By driving homosexuality deep into the closet, the laws may interfere with the fight against HIV/AIDS. Uganda was once an AIDS success story, but that is now changing. The portion of the population that identifies as gay is tiny, but there are many more men in Uganda — and across Africa — who have sex with other men but do not identify as gay or bisexual. These men, many of them married, are now less likely to be honest with health-care providers and less likely to get the education, free condoms, and HIV testing they need. They are also more likely to contract the virus and spread it to their female and male partners. In Senegal, after several HIV prevention workers were imprisoned in 2008, the number of men seeking sexual health services in that area dropped sharply.

How has the West reacted?

President Obama called the Ugandan law "a step backwards for all Ugandans" and said the U.S. was considering revoking aid. Three European countries have already cut aid to Uganda, while the European Parliament has recommended targeted sanctions, including travel and visa bans, against "the key individuals responsible for drafting and adopting" the laws in both Nigeria and Uganda. But in Africa, Western criticism only feeds into the belief that rejection of homosexuality is an African nationalist cause. "The West can keep their 'aid' to Uganda over homos," said Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo. "We shall still develop without it."

Africa's tolerant exceptions

Not all African countries prosecute homosexuals. Consensual same-sex relationships are legal across most of Francophone Africa, including in Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, both Congos, Gabon, and Chad. But the country with the greatest protection of gay rights is South Africa, where the post-apartheid constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Based on that clause, South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, becoming just the fifth country to do so. Gays serve openly in the armed forces, and may adopt children. Still, while the laws ensure equal treatment, South African society is not wholly welcoming. A 2008 survey found that 84 percent of South Africans said homosexual behavior is "always wrong."

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