Seye Abimbola*

“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Last week, the Nigerian senate signed a bill to outlaw homosexual marriage, homosexual association and support for homosexual people: same-sex couples who marry face up to 14 years each in prison; witnesses or anyone who helps a marriage face up to 10 years; “public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly,” 10 years in prison; organising, operating or supporting gay clubs, organisations and meetings will attract a 10-year sentence. Beyond violating the human rights of gay people, these provisions effectively threaten HIV/AIDS care for men that have sex with men. Nigeria is only the next in a list of sub-Saharan African countries that have taken homosexuality seriously, following Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ghana, all former British colonies. These countries like Nigeria, carry on the anachronistic vestige of colonial anti-gay laws and sentiments, adopted long before Britain and the western world came to terms with homosexuality. There is overwhelming historical evidence of the presence of homosexuality and  same sex unions in Africa before contact with Europe and the Arab world. Unlike it is often claimed by anti-gay activists in Africa, it is not homosexuality but homophobia that is un-African.

There may be something good about the recent public interest in homosexuality: it has moved homosexuality from an issue that attracts mere “ridicule” to “violently opposed.” Gay rights has become a subject you can discuss with a taxi driver in Nigeria. But one wonders if this is a right attention at this time, especially with the not so misplaced ire of  politicians and policymakers in Africa, drawn by David Cameron’s rather brash threat that there will be a cut in British funding to countries that have laws that ban and punish homosexuality. Britain spends an average of £20m a year on HIV/AIDS programmes in Nigeria. In Nigeria as in many African countries, less than 10% of people living with HIV/AIDS (about 400,000 people) are on anti-retrovirals with 95% of those paid for by foreign donor funds. Thus Mr Cameron’s concerns are legitimate. The Nigerian health ministry has no programmes specifically targeting the homosexual community. Heterosexual sex accounts for 80% of HIV transmissions in Nigeria. However, it would be for the greater benefit of gay people in these countries if Mr. Cameron, instead of making a punitive pronouncement chooses to direct British aid to support human rights dialogues to ensure tolerance and the inclusion of gay and other minority issues into broader social justice debates. These things are best done quietly and surreptitiously.

Mr. Cameron’s loud pronouncement may stand in the way of proper engagement with the people, politicians and policymakers in Africa where majority are adherents of Christianity and Islam, the two big acquired religions, who share, in a rare instance of common agreement, an ecclesiastically informed aversion to homosexuality with the ironic claim that homosexuality is un-African, as if Islam and Christianity are African! The world has been here before, in fact the world is always here: from the civil rights movement in the USA, to women suffrage globally, same with animal rights movements, the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, and more recently the climate change movement. The zeitgeist always shifts; one only wonders if Mr. Cameron helps or hinders gay rights from moving on from being “violently opposed” to being “accepted as self-evident” in sub-Saharan Africa. Prejudices are still deep in places like Nigeria, and like Mr Cameron admits, it will take many years to get people around, maybe another generation.

Who will suffer the public health fallout of the proposed laws and David Cameron’s pronouncement in Nigeria and other African countries, especially as the Global Fund stagnates in the face of the global financial crisis? Who will suffer if the UK government makes true its threat to withhold foreign aid to countries that violate the rights of gay people to fulfil their sexual destiny? The US government too has said gay rights would be criterion for US aid allocations. It is sad enough that African politicians should have more important priorities than opposing gay rights. What the passing of this bill shows is insensitivity and disconnect of the political class from the real concerns of the people, irrespective their of disposition to homosexuality. Nigerian politicians and their family living with HIV are able to afford treatment abroad. They are able to call the bluff of Mr. Cameron, and pass a law that will restrict access to care for gay people with HIV, people they are not willing or able to help. They do this in the name of preserving an imagined African culture and tradition, in the name of the Christian and Muslim god and most of all in the name of ignorance.

Enjoy your reading.

Seye Abimbola is a research fellow at the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja, Nigeria.

This blog has been crossposted on BMJ blogs

One Response to Edito – On David Cameron, Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa

  1. Joseph Lokong Adaktar says:

    Dear Colleagues,

    I would like to respond to the editorial by Seye Adimbola, titled “On David Cameron, Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa”, which appeared on the IHP Newsletter # 147 of last Friday 9th December 2011.

    Much as I share his concern for the plight of many people in Sub-Saharan Africa who go without ARVs, I, nevertheless, disagree with him on the issues regarding homosexuality and same-sex associations. It is not correct to accuse Christianity and Islam as the ones who introduced the “aversion” to homosexuality and gay marriage to Africa. I give you an example: I come from the Karimojong tribe (real, not imagined) here in Uganda. The Karimojong traditional culture is neither Christian nor Islamic; and it resisted colonial influence successfully. And yet in my tribe, homosexuality, when it happens happens, something extremely rare ( let alone gay marriage which is unimaginable in the tribe) is an abomination punishable by a terrible death. The same goes with the neigbouring tribes. Therefore it is not true that homosexuality and/or gay marriage was accepted/tolerated in our traditional culture before the coming of Christianity and/or Islam. If these practices happened in some African tribes, whether before, during or after the advent of Christianity and Islam, it was recognised as a perversion of human desire; the same goes for such errant acts between a man and woman, such as adultery, etc. This further shows that the judgement on homosexuality and gay marriage is not homophobia as is alleged in the editorial. It is rather a judgement of reason submitted to experience with the laws of nature. You don’t need to be a Christian, Muslim, or African to recognise that it is a perversion, that is, something unreasonable and against the way nature intends things to be. One has just to use his/her reason (not instinct) adequately. Reason and experience show us what the meaning of human sexuality is: procreation, building a family with children together, continuing the human race; as a realisation of the conjugal love between husband (man) and wife (woman). Once more, this was the case even before Christianity and Islam came into Africa. This is not our invention or opinion. By observing reality/experience, it is the way nature has made it to be.

    The exaltation of instinct, which the modern African has also been made to believe is a “human right” is a fraudulent imposition(by whatever means) from the ‘North’; which North has, by and large already lost much of its capacity to use reason according to the totality of its factors and to follow the natural law. It is no coincidence then, that it is in the ‘North’ where the natural family is disappearing, fertility rates are getting below population replacement levels, and this is beginning to threaten their political and socio-economic situation. Then why does one not see that in this way homosexuality and gay marriages (which are contributory factors) do infringe on others’ rights, whether in the present or in the future? Not seeing these consequences which are devastating for all people (i.e. destruction of the common good) constitutes the true ignorance.

    Of course, it is not only because I am Christian, but my use of reason (which was broadened thanks to Christianity) makes me affirm that people with HIV/AIDS should be cared for (whether they are homosexuals or not, heterosexual couples or gay couples; without discrimination). We whom Christianity has made to use reason in this way, do affirm that homosexuals and gay couples should not be killed, nor be tortured, nor persecuted. However, this does not mean, that we have to accept their behaviour as normal or as a human right. The care accorded to them should not only consist of ARVs, etc, but above all should include helping them to change their behaviour and get back to the correct meaning and use of sexuality, in accordance with the natural law. This is where the policies and bills should point to: the care and rehabilitation of the homosexuals, so that they are enabled to rediscover their full dignity as human beings, re-establish the correct meaning of self and of every other reality, re-living the natural relationship with others and things which is in accordance with their natural plan. This is their destiny, and our destiny.

    Joseph Lokong Adaktar.

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