Alliance Nikuze (EV 2013) and Jean-Paul Dossou (EV 2012, Centre de Recherche en Reproduction Humaine et Démographie (Cotonou, Benin) & MPH at ITM, Antwerp )
The debate on homophobia, following the voting of anti-gay bills in several countries in Africa (with Nigeria as the latest example) is more intense than ever. The reaction of some donors to the passing of these bills, whereby some of them hint at (or downright threaten with) possible ODA “consequences”, raises several questions and divides opinions. In this editorial, we try to provide the local and community backdrop for the debate, drawing some lessons for international stakeholders in the process. We don’t aim for comprehensiveness – impossible in a short piece like this – but will offer some key messages. Among others, we will make the case that the current donor stance, which seems to ignore or at least underestimate the reality of the smoldering furnace in societies against homosexuality, is inefficient and even potentially harmful.
Homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa
Among all the explanatory theories of homophobia in Africa, one in particular has captivated our attention. The theory suggests homophobia is fear that the hetero-patriarch will lose control and power over women and children. We see quite some evidence for this theory in our communities: the traditional perception of men as the “strong sex”, for example, or the established gender roles for men and women in society, a pillar of the overall set-up of many sub-Saharan African societies. According to this theory, homosexuality is perceived by many as a phenomenon which endangers the entire foundation of the society. This could explain the harsh rejection of gays, contrasting with a more tolerant attitude towards lesbians.
In the book “African sexualities, A reader”, edited by Sylvia Tamale in 2011, Makau Mutua makes the following statement: “Tribalists, racists, sexists, homophobes, exploiters, misogynists and religious zealots and extremists of all kinds have one thing in common – they are hateful and live by controlling others“. This correlates with the different kinds of violent reactions by some societal groups or by a group of people. The strength and extent of hatred in society varies, though. Yet, it is relatively poorly documented in this part of the world. There are some stats on homosexuality though.
A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 90% of respondents or more said society should not accept homosexuality in countries as diverse as Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria. In South Africa the figure was somewhat lower, but still a majority of the people (61%) did not accept homosexuality. It is possible to have some doubts about the representativeness of these (sad) results, or the methodology, but if you often talk with people about same-sex relations, you will agree that this 90+ percentage is probably close to reality in these countries. You can even go further: the picture is probably the same in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Are all the people who do not accept homosexuality also “homophobes”? Can 90% of survey respondents really be hateful? It seems unrealistic but if that is the case, then our societies are truly sick.
The theologist Mika Mfitzsche described three failures in sub-Saharan Africa that characterized the post-colonial period according to him: the political failure, the economic failure and the cultural failure. The latter he described as the loss of the anthropological identity of the overall society, lost between its roots and the pressure of globalization. If we try to analyze homophobia from this angle, some questions arise. Are we perhaps, at least partially, trying to come to terms with our postcolonial “identity disorder” through oppression of other human beings? Why are we putting so much energy in this issue that seems so far removed from our daily and burning problems (like poverty, diseases, unemployment, inadequate payment, corruption, low quality education) ? What is it that lets a society allow itself being led (astray) by a handful of fearless extremists? Or does our inaction mean we are also extremists? Is homophobia a stand-alone problem or do we need to see it in the context of other challenges? Can we, for a moment, take the time to think about our own actions (or inaction) as no single person has an answer to these questions/issues – they need collective attention.
Some political commentators suggest that governments and some political parties use the issue as a smokescreen: it diverts attention from some of the bigger socio-economic challenges and the role of government in the perpetuation of them. Other pundits perceive homophobia as a remnant of colonial times, and still others see the predications of some imported religions in sub-Saharan Africa as a key factor. There is some truth to all of these perspectives, which suggest at different levels friction between globalization and the sub-Saharan African society. But what explains the near unanimous opinion (more than 90% of the community) against homosexuality, we still don’t know. This highlights the need to work on this question at the community level, within the population, where homophobia seems, unfortunately, deeply embedded.
Is there a role for the international community?
In this context full of uncertainty and unsolved deep questions, let’s explore how the international community could have an impact (for the better, that is) or could be more efficient.
Let’s start by asking, what would it mean to have a homophobia-free society? It is clear that the absence of anti -gay laws or the presence of laws allowing same-sex relations or gatherings of homosexual persons are not sufficient to declare a country or society free of homophobia. In fact, we observe in West-Africa, as in many other regions in sub-Saharan Africa, a gap between the laws of the State and people’s practices. Institutional mechanisms and representation are weak due to a fragile democratic process, laws written in inaccessible languages to the public, …. Whether it’s about children’s rights, women’s rights, codes of family or work, social realities are far from being a reflection of the laws passed in the legislative institutions.
Because of this gap, in extreme cases of insecurity and turmoil, when society thinks it is abandoned by the state, parts of society start to rebel against some of their own people, the ones they reject for some reason, for example by adopting mob strategies, a phenomenon that is unfortunately very common in West-Africa. This form of social violent reaction without trial, is already happening against homosexuals. And we fear that it will only get worse, as the advocacy of the international community often seems to make nationalist “pure African” ideologies even more virulent.
Against this backdrop, we think a society free of homophobia needs a shift in people’s minds towards a new and more tolerant perception of homosexuality, accepting gay people the way they are, and in favour of their integration. Whether outspoken international advocacy and/or ODA cuts can help realize this (necessary) shift, remains to be seen. On the contrary, we feel that the advocacy of the international community, at this stage, is useless. Even more so as the contradictions within some western countries themselves are still huge (see the massive recent protest in France for example against Hollande’s same sex marriage law). Also, the pressure put on African governments seems a bit ad hoc – sometimes there is pressure, sometimes not. So international pressure will probably not accelerate the process towards more tolerance for homosexuals in society, in our opinion. Worse, it might even be counterproductive in the short term, as we explained above. But we might be wrong.
Is there any room of manoeuvre to go forward, nevertheless?
Perhaps the term homophobia in itself carries part of the solution. Perceived as a “phobia”, homophobia could be yet another expression of the collective suffering of societies in crisis, torn, nostalgic of the almost lost Africanity but suffering to find new value references and anchor points faced with seemingly overwhelming globalization – a bit like xenophobia among some groups in European society?
This phobia, like all human phobias, requires therapy. It would thus be more appropriate to consider homophobia as a social construct, a complex, and treat it as such. To do this, we must put our societies “on the couch” and let them express their suffering. This can happen in various ways but in any case a well-defined strategic plan for the long term seems needed. In this process, the role of the state and the international community must be, first and foremost, to organize, promote and guarantee free expression, without violence. The international community should focus its actions more on the community level, perhaps, and should encourage the government to promote a healthy debate (instead of deciding for the government, as seems the case now). The nasty “debate” there is now, in the tabloid press and the political arena, is obviously not what we have in mind. And yes, it’s easier said than done. But there’s no other way.
This requires a different mindset among donors, long-term thinking and action to help promote healing of the social suffering caused by globalization and pressure on traditional societies, well beyond the current vogue of chasing quick impacts . Otherwise, the suffering will remain there, as a latent fire, ready to reappear in one form or another at every opportunity. This time popular anger is directed at gay people, next time another marginal group might be the victim or the scapegoat of the tabloid press or some populist politicians.
There are many countries in this world, but it’s a small world now, due to our increasing interconnectedness. It is important to notice how homophobia (and the ‘free expression’ of it) has risen in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa, just when same-sex marriage was being legalized in some western countries, as if, all of a sudden, states and people wanted to prove to themselves, maybe, that the trends in the West won’t affect their traditional way of life: another contradiction which characterizes our society’s sickness?
Obviously, there’s much more to be said about this issue, but to conclude: which individual or institutional advocacy is likely to have a positive impact on today’s homophobia then? Well, courageous advocacy that comes from individuals, organizations or states who/which have not supported/practiced (or remained silent to) any form of human rights abuse (including economic, cultural, …) and have rejected any form of discrimination (the likes of Desmond Tutu) throughout their lives, careers and institutional policies. So let these people, organizations and institutions come forward and take a stance. The others better shut up.