Alliance Nikuze (EV 2013) and Jean-Paul Dossou (EV 2012, Centre de Recherche en Reproduction Humaine et Démographie (Cotonou, Benin) & MPH at ITM, Antwerp  )  

Alliance Nikuze           JeanPaul Dossou



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.

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3 Responses to Homo-“phobia” in sub-Saharan Africa: How much more time are we going to postpone the real therapy of the “disease”?

  1. Kefilath Bello says:

    Many thanks to Jean-Paul and Alliance. I also think that homophobia in Africa should be analyse in the context of the daily struggle of Africans for finding they way through all the suffering and crisis of our society. And, as you pointed, one of the major crisis is the wandering for our cultural identity. Indeed, most of Africans seems against homosexuality. But , isn’t that just a symptom of incomprehension and fear of unknown? The uncertainty on consequences of all transitions in our society and what we’ve been taught as “normal”? As you said, we need debate and why not sociological analysis to find the best way to tackle homophobia in Africa. This will promote unbiased information and better understanding among Africans. Against homophobia (and all kind of discrimination) we need to be open minded and try to understand people who seem different from us, and I think we’ll discover that there is no real difference. This is why I particularly like the suggestion of John whereby homosexual should express themselves directly, not through emissaries. The role of the scientific community and international community should also be to promote and moderate these debates without violence. As African scientists, we could also try to better understand our culture and context and find together original (and African) ways to face challenges of globalization.

  2. Alliance & Jean-Paul says:

    Dear John Adewoye,
    Thank you very much for this precious comment.
    You clearly show, from practical experience, the problem of the cultural “wandering and suffering” in sub-Saharan Africa.
    We were impressed by your realistic stakeholder analysis. The current impact of the first 3 Ps on the last P, seems poorly coordinated and controlled , sparse , scattered, oriented to unclear interests. Being able to interact consistently and strategically with these actors seems to us very interesting, although we think it is a real challenge.
    It is for this task that we need everyone than can help to promote, from within the community, better growth and greater social tolerance : influence preachers (not an easy task, we guess) and their message, promote a political and media environment that encourages and promotes social debate rather than imposing the conclusions.
    It is not the easiest, but we are glad that we share the opinion that this is the best way forward to have sustainable results.

    Alliance & Jean-Paul

  3. John Adewoye says:


    This so far is the best article I have read that suggests practical approach to dealing with homophobia in the sub-Sahara Africa. I commend Alliance Nikuze and Jean-Paul for a job well done.

    I have the following suggestions to make:
    1. Historical reconnection with the root. I have always contemplated the reality of African loss of identity and living a disoriented life. I traced this back to the era of slave trade that uprooted the social, cultural and traditional religious lives of the sub-Saharan African population for over two decades. I came to that conclusion due to my experience of “cosmic work” during a program in spiritual direction that I took with the “Institute of Spiritual Companionship.” It shows me a big lacuna unfilled and seemingly bottomless hence cannot be filled. It was created during the era of slave trade. Slave trade ws followed by Colonial era and the neo-colonial hegemony have not helped the situation. How can you claim to be protecting what you rebuffed? Sango devotees for example are well known to cross dress when this “Orisa” mounts them. Yet the traditional Sango worshipping families don’t want to have anything to do with this reality again. My aunt who though was a catholic, also worships Sango once called me “Eni Orisa” (a person set aside for Orisa worship) but quickly added that I have gone with the greater Orisa (Jesus) because I was in the Seminary studying for the Catholic priesthood. (I ran away from that woman for sometime. I did not tell my parents and siblings who were also “Catholic-crazy” what she told me. I have always thought she could be a lesbian too. I would not connect her statement with my sexual orientation till I came in contact with the role of LGBTI in the Native American tradition.) Homophobia as it is a construct of foreign religion.
    2. Appealing to the conscience of the three Ps to gain road to the thinking of the fourth “P” could be a way out. They are A. The preachers, B. The Press. C. The Politicians and D. the gullible Populace. While B and C may lack scrupulous conscience and D simply lack knowledge and will power to question the divine, the preachers do not lack much because they have the scary God in their pocket. The preachers meet people at the lowest part of people’s life. That said, if we find a road to the conscience of the Church leaders in particular, they might be able to influence the other two Ps. The three Ps have a way of carrying the fourth P along with them even to point of facilitating mass suicide. Their power is in their ability to communicate eloquently, using the divine to command the minds of the people and present garbage like cabbage to people, till the populace eats it while they pounce on the real cabbage unnoticed by the masses. We can work with them through direct dialogue not by emissaries but by real indigenous gay people and lesbians who have personal stories to tell. Again, the main entrance could be the religious leaders; capturing the principal “P” is capturing the mind of the fourth “P” the populace.
    3. Take a risk. I also try to encourage people in my community (gay) to identify those who have some soft spot for them and take the risk of coming open to them about their sexual orientation. Foster dialogue without being defensive or trying to convince your trustee. I have done it with little regrets. From personal observation, 90% of LGBTI Nigerians that I know are masked. Encouraging them to peep behind the mask from time to time may help our community.
    4. Exploring allies: A. from the Ivory towers. B. Among the socialites/celebrities. While the Nigerians unanimously condemn my community, the socialites have been of great support while those in the Ivory towers have been majorly silent. Forming a working coalition to explore relationship with these two communities can change the views of the populace. We need to find our way to the psychic of those in movies industries. Some of them are our community members.
    5. Have a working coalition: Each country and states within and local governments or counties with the state need to have strong and active working coalitions. Meet regularly, identify victims of homophobia and support them directly to heal. Create access to legal counsels.
    John Adewoye

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