Political Cost of Defending Gay Rights in Africa

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DAKAR, 18 July 2013 (IRIN) - US President Barack Obama’s recent call for equality for gays during his Africa tour drew assurances by his Senegalese counterpart that the country was not homophobic. Yet dismantling anti-gay laws and attitudes carries huge political and religious risks few leaders in the continent are willing to take, rights groups say.…

Political Will

While external pressure may have limited effectiveness in changing homophobic attitudes in Africa, “South Africa and Brazil have taken the lead in certain UN resolutions on LGBTI rights,” Human Rights Watch LGBTI researcher Neela Ghoshal told IRIN. “This shows that it is no longer Africa against the West. Rwanda is also debating more about homosexuals’ rights. It should take a bigger role in the debate.”

Among the 37 African countries where homosexuality is criminalized, Senegal is notorious for convicting and jailing gays, Ghoshal said.

The responsibility of decriminalizing homosexuality rests upon the political class to influence the society, argued Ghoshal. “A president cannot simply change the law, but he can explain to the citizens the obligation to respect and ratify international human rights treaties,” she said.

But fears of political, social and religious backlash undermine the political will to defend gay rights in places like Senegal, said Aboubacry Mbodji, the secretary general of the African Rally for Human Rights (RADDHO).

“No head of state is willing to commit [to defending gay rights] for fear of losing voters’ support or the support of marabous [traditional religious leaders] who have a huge political influence in the country,” Mbodji said.

“In Senegal, some recently radicalized people - extremist marabous - are at loggerheads with moderate religious brotherhood and urge for the lynching of homosexuals.”

Certain interpretations of the Koran have added to the anti-gay laws, said DD, noting that other countries are more lenient. “In Morocco, an Islamic and a very religious country, homosexuality is tolerated, even if it’s just by allowing gay bars.”

“All depend on the mentality of the political leadership. Some leaders prefer just to govern and not touch on this [gay rights] debate. Others [are like Zimbabwe’s] President Mugabe, who likes to exploit the issue during national crises to deflect attention,” said Damian Ugwu, the Africa programme coordinator at International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

In Malawi, for instance, President Joyce Banda failed to hold on to a pledge to open debate about gay rights once she took power, said Ugwu. He also explained that anti-gay bills in Nigeria and Uganda have fuelled an intense debate between rights activists and religious fundamentalists.…