In the last few years, there has been a growing trend in the revival of anti-homosexuality legislation and increasing enforcement of sodomy laws, including clampdowns on members of the LGBTQ community. An argument used in support of this and other measures targeting LGBTQ persons is that non-conforming sexual orientations and gender identities are imports from Western countries and are contrary to African values.
When Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe publicly castigated the gay community in 1995 during the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) in Harare, it opened up the continent to contemporary politicised homophobia and a raft of legislations against the LGBTQ community.
Uganda, which currently has its Anti-homosexualilty Bill of 2023 awaiting assent by President Yoweri Museveni kickstarted the move to have the viral anti-gay rhetoric codified it into law. In 2000, the country amended its Penal Code through the Penal Code Amendment (Gender References) Act to change relevant sections of the “un- natural offences” to refer to “any person” instead of “any male” effectively extending the rule to cover female to female sex. This was punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
Uganda went a step further in 2005 to prohibit same-sex marriage. On 29 September 2005, President Museveni signed a constitutional amendment that inserted Clause 2 (a) to Article 31 of it Constitution to the effect that ‘’marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited’’
Then in 2009 came the infamous ‘Kill the Gays Bill’.
Tabled by Ndorwa West MP, David Bahati (current Minister of State for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives), the Bill sought to impose harsh penalties including death for “aggravated homosexuality” and criminalised anyone who “aids, abets, counsels, or procures another to engage of acts of homosexuality,” punishable by up to seven years in prison. Despite overwhelming support from both the public and fellow parliamentarians, Bahati’s Bill failed to pass.
Two years later, the bill was revived by the then Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga (now the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of East African ) and tabled before parliament again. The Bill remained substantially similar to the one introduced by Bahati in 2009, with one exception — the removal of the death penalty as a possible punishment for those convicted of aggravated homosexuality. The maximum penalty under the new bill would instead be life imprisonment. The House passed the bill in December of 2013 and on 24 February 2014, President Museveni signed it into law.
The victory was short-lived.
Ugandan activists went to court to challenge the legality of the law, firstly for being passed in parliament without the necessary quorum of lawmakers and secondly for violating the constitutional right to privacy and dignity, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. On 1 August 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court annulled the law.
Though the annulment came as a win for the LGBTQ community, damaged had already been done. The Anti-homosexuality Bill of 2014 had paved the way for further campaigns against LGBTQ people and a compendium of legislation across the continent.
In November of 2009, Rwanda drew up a draft revision of its Penal Code Act proposing the criminalisation of consensual same-sex acts and relationships, as well as criminalising the work of LGBTQ human rights defenders. The draft was shelved after civil society organisations submitted a joint position paper on the draft Act in solidarity with the LGBTQ movement and uproar from the international community.
And in 2014 in Nigeria, where sodomy was already punishable by imprisonment, former President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 (SSMPA) that severely raised the stakes in regulations. While the maximum penalty was 14 years – which is common in countries that maintained the British colonial laws on sodomy – the scope of the offence was substantially broadened. The conditions for imprisonment now included gay marriage, public display of same-sex “amorous relationships” and even membership in gay rights groups.
Mali also saw the rise of a movement “Fight against homosexuality in Mali” (“Lutte contre l’homosexualité au Mali”-LCHM) that “hunted for homosexuals.” The self-appointed watchdog distributed photos and sometimes videos of people presumed to be homosexual on Facebook and invited members to find and persecute them.
Around the same time, the late John Magufuli was also leading an ‘unoffical’ crackdown on Tanzania’s LGBTQ community. At one time, Magufuli slammed foreign NGOs that campaign for gay rights and Tanzanian LGBTQ activists, saying “Those who teach such things do not like us, brothers. They brought us drugs and homosexual practices that even cows disapprove of.” Magufuli also had his henchmen singing the same tune.
On 25 June 2018, the then Tanzania Home Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba threatened to prosecute and deport anyone working to protect the rights of LGBTQ people. Later on 29 October 2018, Paul Makonda, the former regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam, ordered the public to report the names of those suspected of being gay and announced the creation of a special task force dedicated to identifying and hunting down gay people. And even though at the time the government distanced itself from Makonda citing that those were his personal sentiments, Makonda was a known close ally of Magufuli, who had not been one to hide his stance on matters LGBTQ.
On top of the vitriol, the government of Tanzania shutdown 40 private health centers that were providing HIV/AIDS treatment to key populations — a category that includes gay men, transgender people and sex workers. The government argued that the health centers were helping promote gay sex, going further to suspend HIV/AIDS prevention programs funded by the United States which were providing care for LGBTQ individuals. It also banned the importation and sale of sexual lubricants and has since 2018 upscaled the use of forced anal examination against suspected LGBTQ persons.
In Cameroon, throughout the month of February 2021, security forces went about arbitrarily arresting, beating, and threatening persons alleged to be homosexuals. Nine people were arrested in western Cameroon for ‘practising homosexuality’ on 25 February 2021 while 24 others, including a 17-year-old boy, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity and two transgender women who had been arrested for wearing women’s clothing while eating at a restaurant in Doula were sentenced to five years in jail for contravening homosexuality laws.
And by August 2021, Ghana too had its own bill in the works. The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanian Family Values Bill which is still undergoing constitutional review by Parliament proposed jail terms for consensual same-sex intercourse, “promotion” of LGBTQ activities, “public show of amorous relations” and advocated for conversion therapy. The bill, if enacted, would also forcibly disband all LGBTQ organisations and prohibit adoption by same-sex couples.