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Who’s to Blame for Anti-LGBT Laws in Africa?

Sodomy was first criminalised by colonialists in 1898, making consensual homosexual relationships strictly illegal in several colonies around the globe. The recent groundbreaking ruling in Mauritius, which decriminalised same-sex relationships, serves as a stark contrast against other African countries where anti-homophobic sentiment is on the rise. Most notably, the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, signed a law against "aggravated homosexuality", which imposes the death penalty on those caught in so-called "aggravated" same-sex relations. 

The undeniable contrast in legislation between these two former British colonies leads to this fundamental question – who is to blame for anti-LGBT laws and sentiment in Africa, colonial legacy or local governments? 

The African continent had what we would consider a progressive attitude towards homosexuality and gender identity before colonisation. Examples of this go as far back as 2300 BC when Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep, two high officials in ancient Egypt, ruled together in the first documented same-sex couple as depictions of them embracing each other were found in tombs. Furthermore, in strict contrast to modern-day Uganda, King Mwanga II was an openly gay monarch in what is now Uganda; he strongly opposed colonialism and Christian ideals. 

Gender was previously seen in many African countries as non-binary. The Dagaaba people in modern-day Ghana didn't assign gender from birth or based on primary sexual characteristics but on the "energy" a person has. It can also be seen that in the cultures of Ndogno, a third gender was part of their culture – Chibados. They were mainly people who were assigned male at birth but lived as women. 

The British Empire sought to impose strong fundamentalist Christian values upon its colonies, which led Africa to lose its previous culture of progression and acceptance to a frankly backwards ideology which sought to oppress and impose its own ideals upon people. Christian missionaries and colonial administrators legally enforced these homophobic laws, leading to the execution of many homosexuals within British African colonies. The enormous influence of these missions is evidenced through research conducted by the PEW Institute, which found that in 1910, 1.4% of all Christians globally were in Sub-Saharan Africa; this figure by 2010 had sharply increased to 23.6%.  

The most aggressive contemporary anti-gay laws can be found in Uganda. Uganda has for a while criminalised homosexuality with crimes such as "attempted homosexuality", leading to imprisonments of as long as ten years. However, recent legislation in Uganda has led to what Human Rights Watch claims to be the first-ever country to criminalise merely identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ Community. The organisation has stated that these laws inhibit a person's right to "freedom of expression and association, liberty, privacy, equality, and freedom from discrimination and inhuman and degrading treatment."

Like the control policy seen in the Soviet era, where citizens had to spy and inform on their neighbours, this new law dictates that friends and family need to report "suspected homosexual activity" to the appropriate authorities. This legislation also goes against the freedom of the press, a globally accepted value, as it makes it illegal for institutions to support Pro-LGBTQIA+ broadcasting, including regular journalists and any affiliated news organisations.

President Museveni has justified Ugandan homophobic legislation by stating that homosexuality is an import from Western countries. He believes that these laws against homosexuality are "promoting and protecting" Uganda's cultural values, despite homosexuality in the past being largely accepted in Uganda. Similarly, this sentiment has been seen in other African countries, with the former Zimbabwean president calling homosexuality a "white disease".

While the case of Uganda may shine a negative light on same-sex rights in Africa and colonialism's negative impact on the culture and views in these countries, the case of Mauritius enshrines a country's ability to become progressive and accepting of others. In October of this year, Mauritius decriminalised same-sex relations. The case was brought on by Abdool Ridwan Firaas Ah Seek, who argued that these laws violated his fundamental rights. The Supreme Court stated that sodomy laws in Mauritius did not "reflect any indigenous Mauritian values but was inherited as part of our colonial history from Britain", and furthering this, the court ruled that this law was not brought into Mauritius by the will of the people but the will of Britain.

While it can be observed that colonialism is to blame for the existence of "sodomy" laws in African countries regarding LGBTQAI+ rights In Africa, we need to hold local governments to account. While it's apparent that this anti-gay sentiment can be blamed on colonialism, the decisions of today's leaders perpetuate this discrimination. The blame for anti-LGBT laws in Africa needs to be placed where it belongs – on the shoulders of local governments that do have the power to bring positive change to their countries. Mauritius is a shining example. It demonstrates that when local leaders have the guts to challenge the status quo, positive change soon follows.

Image: Getty/via Amnesty International

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