How the legacy of colonialism impacts LGBT+ rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

Ezekiel Dobelsky

LGBT+ flag at Pride Parade.
Source: Media from Wix

Of the 69 countries where same-sex relationships are considered a crime, just under half are found in Africa. In four countries, it is punishable by death, and jail terms can last over a decade in six more. Even in countries which are generally considered respectful of human rights, such as Ghana, members of the LGBTQ+ community face criminalisation for their relationships. The rhetoric against homosexuality in Africa is among the most vociferous in the world, and the dehumanisation of gay African people by their own leaders is not unusual. The stigma surrounding homosexual relations has massive health consequences, and thousands of gay African men die annually due to difficulties accessing HIV testing and medicine.

A 2016 Afrobarometer survey indicates that whilst African people are, in general, more tolerant of differing ethnicities and religious beliefs, this tolerance does not exist for homosexual behaviour. Some commentators have labelled Africa the ‘most homophobic continent’, but this risks ignoring the colonial origins of these attitudes.


Why is Africa so homophobic?

The prevalence of homophobia in Africa traces its roots to the colonial practices of the 19th and 20th centuries. Colonisation enforced the notion that homosexual behaviour was immoral, with European empires implementing homophobic legislation and criminal codes throughout their colonies. European colonies enacted ‘sodomy’ laws that sought to punish ‘immoral’ sexual behaviour. Prior to colonisation, homosexual relationships were more widely accepted, although there were regions where it was still outlawed (such as those with a strong religious presence).

Religious identity is another source of homophobia. The major religions in Africa, Christianity and Islam, typically have strong doctrinal anti-gay stances. There is discussion of a breakaway in the United Methodist Church, with many African church bodies willing to join a split with the central, global body over tolerance to same-sex marriage. The Christian Association of Nigeria has threatened any church that tolerates same-sex relationship with sanctions. States that implement Sharia law (an interpretation of Islamic religious law), such as Somalia and Sudan, also use that as justification for homophobic legislation.

Homosexual relations are also frequently characterised as ‘un-African’. This narrative argues that homosexuality was introduced to Sub-Saharan Africa by either Arabs or Europeans, and that the promotion of gay rights is an attempt from former colonial masters to maintain control over a weak continent. Although this claim has been disproven, it is commonly repeated, especially amongst populist leaders looking to cement votes and power.

Gay Rights as Human Rights

Conversely, safeguarding the rights of same-sex couples has become more prominent in the West, which has resulted in the occasional and haphazard attempts at protecting these rights around the world. The role of the US and the EU in promoting human rights in SSA is vexed, and the advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights is no exception. Since 2010, Western nations have used the threat of aid withdrawal, and rhetorical condemnations to overturn homophobic legal decisions.

Although no doubt a noble idea, the effectiveness of Western attempts to pressure and coerce homophobic African countries to amend laws and protect gay rights often fails to consider the colonial overtones, especially the role of colonial legal codes in the outlawing of homosexual relations.


It has become increasingly common for Western countries to promote LGBTQ+ rights in non-Western countries. In 2011, the Obama administration announced that the USA would promote gay rights through diplomatic means throughout the world, stating that ‘gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights’.

These methods involved two main practices in the African context: diplomatic denunciation and shaming from Western nations, and the threat or actual withdrawal of aid.

Criticism of homophobic African legislation is common, and can lead to diplomatic rows: in 2019, the US ambassador to Zambia was recalled after criticising the jailing of a homosexual couple.

However, the threat of withdrawing aid is presumed to be more impactful, given the reliance of many Sub-Saharan African states on foreign aid. In the early 2010s, Britain and America threatened the withdrawal of aid in response to homophobic legislation in Malawi, Ghana and Uganda.

However, these threats were unsuccessful and counterproductive. In Malawi, there was a severe backlash against members of the LGBTQ+ community, for the perception that they were responsible for the decline in aid.

The colonial legacy greatly impacts the perception of Western LGBTQ+ rights advocacy.

When homosexuality is viewed as an inherently ‘un-African’ behaviour that was imported from the West, Western support for LGTBQ+ rights becomes perceived as a threat that undermines the creation of a strong and unified African identity.

The perception that the West is attempting to coerce African nations into adopting policies that undermine Africa is especially potent for populist leaders looking to cement power. This was Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s strategy when Western nations cut aid in 2014. The threat of outside political interference from powerful Western countries can be leveraged and used to reinforce homophobic attitudes.

A New Strategy

Learning from the failures of these efforts in the early 2010s, new methods to promote the safety and rights of the LGBTQ+ community must be devised.

One important contribution could be from the continued promotion of regional charters. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, whilst not explicitly recognising LGBTQ+ groups as deserving protection, has nevertheless been used to create safeguards. Importantly, as it is the African Charter created by the African Commission, the argument that it is foreign bodies that are undermining African culture doesn’t hold up.

Further funding and support for African civil society and African-based NGOs, who understand the local context and environment, is also critical. Western influence in these matters, which are viewed as moral and cultural issues, are counter-productive and serve to reinforce the notion that gay rights is a Western issue. Acknowledging and addressing this legacy of colonialism will prove crucial in overcoming it in the years ahead.


 

Ezekiel completed his Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne in 2020, to go with his undergraduate double degree of Arts & Economics from Monash University. He previously interned at EcoPeace Middle East, a regional NGO focused on environmental peace-building in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He is currently an editorial assistant at E-IR, and teaches chess on the side.


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