Anti-LGBT Groups Making Inroads Across East Africa

06/12/2015 06:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

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By Jacob Kushner and Anthony Langat

This story is the first in a series by The GroundTruth Project on LGBT rights in East Africa, produced with support from the Galloway Family Foundation.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Two years after Ugandan legislators proposed a law that would condemn active gay people to death, a precedent is spreading throughout the region.

In Kenya, one political party is now working to do the same after drafting a lengthy anti-homosexuality bill that it hopes Kenyan lawmakers will soon enact.

"For our local citizens it proposed life sentences. For the foreigners we propose stoning to death," said Vincent Kidaha, President of Kenya's Republican Liberty Party. "There is no African, no Kenyan who is born homosexual. It's not natural."

Across many parts of Africa, homophobic organizations, religious and political leaders are increasingly pushing an anti-gay agenda into the public discourse. This determined march against the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals in Africa contrasts with the movement in favor of equal rights that is underway in the US and Western Europe, capped just last week by the vote in Ireland that overwhelmingly approved a referendum making same-sex marriage legal.

While there is a global wave in favor of gay rights, it has not reached all shores. Many countries still punish homosexual acts with prison time, torture and even death. And the place where the battles lines for the rights of LGBT individuals are most starkly drawn is in Africa, where 37 of the continent's 54 countries consider homosexual acts criminal.

The fires of homophobia in Africa are fanned by the rhetoric of religious fundamentalists of both Christianity and Islam who at times incite mob violence and urge legislators to further penalize homosexual acts. This widespread persecution has caused refugee camps to fill with LGBT asylum seekers fleeing precarious livelihoods in their home countries.

One of the early pioneers of anti-gay sentiments by African governments was Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, who in the 1990s, "berated 'sodomists' for 'behaving worse than dogs and pigs' and proclaimed a return to 'traditional' culture, saying, 'We have our own culture, and we must rededicate ourselves to our traditional values that make us human beings,'" according to a 2011 report. "Mugabe proclaimed that homosexuals should not 'have any rights at all.'"

These sentiments are now spreading as rapidly as ever across the region. Today, as Tanzania drafts a new constitution, anti-LGBT groups have lobbied to exclude protections for "gender" or anything that could be construed as protecting LGBT people.

Last year, Gambian president Yahya Jammeh said, "LGBT can only stand for leprosy, gonorrhea, bacteria and tuberculosis," then proceeded to compare gay people to vermin, The Economist reported.

In Nigeria, federal law classifies homosexuality as a felony, and in several provinces which had adopted sharia, or Islamic law, there is a death penalty for gay men. A Nigerian priest known for his anti-gay advocacy was promoted in April to a high post in the Anglican Church, a move that drew praise from a similarly homophobic Anglican priest in Kenya. In Uganda, a foreign minister who supported the harsh anti-gay law there was chosen last year to become President of the UN General Assembly.

Eric Gitari, who heads the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Kenya, said the world has focused almost singularly on Uganda while missing the story in the rest of Africa.

"Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Burundi -- things are going on but not getting attention," Gitari said.

In Kenya, a contradiction exists between the new, 2010 constitution and the country's preexisting penal code. The constitution "guarantees to all Kenyans the rights to life, liberty, security of person, and privacy" and "protects individuals' freedom of expression, association and assembly, and movement" in addition to outlawing discrimination, as summarized by Human Rights Watch.

At the same time Section 162 of the penal code prescribes up to 14 years imprisonment to people who engage in "acts of gross indecency" and "against the order of nature" -- often interpreted to mean gay sex.

Local laws -- such as those in Kenya's second-largest city of Mombasa -- prescribe further penalties, which "exacerbate abuses by police and other state agents, who subject LGBTI persons to harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or on trumped up charges, denial of services, sexual assault and rape," according to Human Rights watch.

"Although these laws are rarely enforced, Kenya's LGBT community continue to experience intolerance and discrimination from members of the community, religious leaders and politicians."

In Kenya as in Uganda before it, one of the primary tactics used by anti-LGBT groups is the attempt to further criminalize homosexuality under federal law.

"We are filling the gap between our constitution and the penal code," said the Republican Liberty Party president Kidaha, referring to the anti-homosexuality bill his party is attempting to push through Kenyan Parliament.

For Kidaha and his allies, the law doesn't yet go far enough. "It doesn't expound to (wider) homosexual activities," he said. "It doesn't specify the nature of punishment if the party or the offender are involved in that homosexual activity."

When the bill was introduced in March 2014, Aden Duale, the assembly majority leader, said homosexuality was a social problem "as serious as terrorism." When another member of parliament called for increased prosecutions under Kenya's anti-sodomy laws, Duale cited a report by the Ministry of the Interior that concluded Kenya had prosecuted 595 people for homosexuality since the new constitution was passed.

"I want to urge my colleagues that this is a social problem," he said. "It is incumbent upon our religious leaders, our political leaders, government, parents, school administrators, we must [campaign against] it."

But if the rhetoric of the anti-gay movement in Kenya is loud, some observers point out that the shouting comes from the sidelines. Indeed, the anti-homosexuality bill has been stuck in parliamentary committee, without the support of enough legislators to bring it to a vote.

"These people who have proposed anti-gay legislation are really fringe," said Neela Ghoshal, a Kenya-based researcher in the LGBT Rights division at Human Rights Watch. "I don't think anyone really takes them seriously, and that includes parliamentarians."

Even so, LGBT advocates say the low rate of enforcement of these laws doesn't negate their danger.

"Often people say the laws aren't enforced so the laws aren't really an issue," said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.

"The law makes the LGBT community very vulnerable because if they report, they risk exposure. The law contributes to a climate in which the violence and abuse takes place," including blackmail and extortion, Reid added.

In some East African countries things may be getting worse for LGBT individuals. While recent attempts to further criminalize homosexuality have failed in Ethiopia and Rwanda, they've succeeded in Chad and Nigeria.

Part of that agitation may have been a byproduct of attempts by Western governments to help in a way that some believe has backfired.

In 2011 President Barak Obama's administration ordered federal employees and contractors to combat the decriminalization of homosexuality and do more to protect vulnerable LGBT populations. And as the Economist reported, after Uganda "passed its harsh anti-gay law, America cancelled joint military drills, cut aid and applied travel bans. Some other Western countries followed suit, as did the World Bank."

Michael Kioko, a lawyer for the Mombasa-based gay rights organization Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved (PEMA), said the Western strategy was the wrong approach.

"When you tie aid to business ... I don't think that is productive," said Kioko. "It could be counterproductive because (opponents) say, 'See, they are trying to force us to adopt, to be like them.' They believe (homosexuality) is a Western thing. So people rebel. They tell their governments not to do what you're being forced to do."

Kioko says the U.S. and other Western governments would do more to help LGBT rights here by staying out of the debate, at least publicly. "When you look at Uganda and even Rwanda, governments will, in their own way and quietly, follow and listen," he said.

But anti-gay activists believe the U.S. will continue to pressure African leaders on the subject. When Obama visits Kenya in July, "There is no doubt that he will try to coerce all African leaders, starting from elected religious (leaders) and traditionalists to embrace this Satanic agenda," wrote Kidaha in an April letter.

Meanwhile men like Nderitu Njoka, who runs a small Nairobi-based outfit he calls the Global Men Empowerment Network (Maendeleo ya Wanaume), believe "homosexuality is a weapon of mass destruction and is being used by the Western world to finish Africa."

Last year Njoka organized a march in solidarity with Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act-- which he helped author -- and called on Kenyan leaders to enforce stricter laws against gay people including a dress code.

"Homosexuality in the real sense is not a right," Njoka told GroundTruth. "When we talk about rights we need to look at them as rights are God-given. Rights come from God so homosexuality and lesbianism is not a human right. It is anti-human."

Religious fundamentalism on the rise

If the present-day battle over LGBT rights in East Africa is largely a political one, its roots are in religion and the revival of fundamentalist Christian and Islamic principles.

"We are seeing a rise of fundamentalism," explains Dr. Kapya Kaoma, researcher for the Boston-based policy advocacy group Political Research Associates (PRA). "When you get Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists to agree, it's on gay issues. This is a unified fight."

Perhaps no religious group has pushed the anti-gay agenda in Kenya as strongly as the East African Center for Law and Justice (EACLJ), a Christian NGO associated with the prominent Washington, DC-based American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLJ raised $75 million between 2008 and 2012, citing IRS records. The group's founder is the controversial religion mogul Pat Robertson, who once told a caller on his TV show not to travel to Kenya because "the towels could have AIDS."

Such comments and financing are part of a larger trend in which American evangelical churches that have taken anti-gay stances globally -- along with the individuals and independent foundations affiliated with them -- receive tens of millions of dollars from supporters, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom alone has an annual budget of $45 million. Even U.S. government funding has gone to groups known to preach anti-homophobic agendas in Africa, according to an investigation by The Nation into federal spending meant to combat AIDS.

Meanwhile the EACLJ has called homosexuality a "foreign concept." When Kenya was contemplating its new constitution, the organization "worked to ensure that the new constitution, drafted in 2010, would bar abortion and homosexuality. When that failed, the center used American resources and galvanized Kenyan Christians to attempt to defeat the new constitution when it was put to a vote," according to research by PRA.

EACLJ Executive Director Joy Mdivo told PRA it plans to "carry out further civic education to warn people of the dangers of homosexuality and abortion in Kenya." (The EACLJ declined repeated interview requests by GroundTruth).

Now Mdivo's group "is aggressively re-organizing its work in Kenya to erase the openings provided to LGBT and reproductive rights advocates," according to a 2012 PRA report.

The report found that the EACLJ is helping promote anti-gay politicians and working with local conservative and Christian groups "to see to it that homosexuality and abortion become political issues again."

The report continues, "Among the EACLJ's strategy toward promoting an anti-LGBT agenda is to deny the right of LGBT to organize collectively and to prevent LGBT rights groups from registering at all."

In Kenya, the group most affected by that agenda was Gitari's National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In 2012 Gitari attempted to officially register the NGO with Kenya's government. But forbidding LGBT groups from registering is a strategy for anti-LGBT activists to quietly codify discrimination into law.

And so, in 2013 and under pressure from conservative, religiously affiliated groups, Kenya's Non-Governmental Organizations Coordination Board rejected Gitari's attempt to register his organization.

"We applied six times," Gitari says. "Every time they would say 'your name is unacceptable.'"

That's when Gitari filed a petition based on Article 66 of Kenya's constitution which guarantees the right of association. Finally, in April, the High Court of Kenya ruled in Gitari's favor, calling the board's refusal to register his organization "unacceptable" in what Reid called "a significant victory for the LGBT community, not only in Kenya, but elsewhere in Africa."

In spite of homophobic rhetoric from certain corners here, gay rights advocates say they have a renewed cause for optimism. Activists point to the fact that the East African Court of Justice agreed to hear a case against the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act as a point of optimism.

In Kenya in particular, activists and LGBT individuals say society seems more ready to accept homosexuality than ever. Last year a prominent author came out, a book was published with testimonies by different LGBTs, and a leading activist and editor of that book said that "Africa is ripe" to respect the rights of gay people. GroundTruth reported last year that socially, Kenyans are embracing homosexuality faster than any other African nation.

In 2007, a Pew Research Study found that four percent of Kenyans said society should accept homosexuality. When researchers repeated the survey in 2013, the percentage doubled. In some ways daily life in Nairobi seems to reflect that trend: An international gay rights organization recently compiled a list of dozens of gay-friendly businesses, organizations and individuals in Kenya. Some say this increasing acceptance of homosexuality represents a larger shift in African society in which Africans are considering how they want to be viewed in an increasingly globalized world.

"Today, the gay controversy reminds us that culture is still the site where Africa is being asked to provide evidence of her membership of the human family," wrote Pius Adesanmi, Professor of Literature and African studies at Carleton University in Canada and a well-known Nigerian author. "Culture is also the site where Africa is pushing back, claiming rightly or wrongly to be resisting foreign imposition."

Anthony Oluoch has seen this pushback firsthand. The former director of Kenya Gay Trust, one of the most prominent LGBT rights organization in East Africa, Oluoch recently became regional director for the international LGBT advocacy group the Kaleidoscope Trust.

"Five, seven years ago we wouldn't even have (had) space to speak to the media," he said. "[Now] they even call us to talk about sexual orientation as a human right, not as a deviant behavior. I think it has grown a little better."