Guest op-ed by Anthony Natif, a pharmacist in Uganda, Toyosi Adejumo, a Nigerian physician, and Nathan Furukawa, a medical student at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The explosion of homophobia in Africa has been attributed to a number of causes – traditional culture, the influence of Western evangelicals or other drivers – and noted as well for the risk this poses especially when it comes to fighting HIV-AIDS.
What hasn’t received as much attention are the political reasons for this unhealthy trend, and the threat it poses for human rights and progress in Africa in general.
In 2010, the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone shamelessly published ‘100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak’. The front page article featured a picture of David Kato, Uganda’s leading gay rights activist, with the subtext: ‘Hang Them’. Within three months, he was found dead in his home, his head crudely bludgeoned by a hammer.
Being gay in much of Africa had been dangerous long before the governments of Nigeria and Uganda passed legislation criminalizing homosexuality. Of the 61 countries in Africa, 39 outlaw homosexuality and 4 of them have a death penalty: Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria, and southern Somalia.
At first glance, these anti-homosexuality bills are disheartening erosions in human rights reflecting the negative attitudes of homosexuality by Nigerians and Ugandans. Indeed a sizeable majority of Nigerians and Ugandans favored their passage.
However, a deeper look into the situation reveals the underlying Machiavellian political reasons behind why Presidents Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda embarked on their malicious crackdown on gay rights.
Both presidents are residing over significant failures of governance in health, employment, and regional stability and would like nothing more than a distraction to rally their supporters and critics to their sides.
In Nigeria, where the discovery of oil in 1956 greatly pre-dates its transition to civilian-led democracy in 2003, the oil industry has an established hegemony and exerts large influence in the Nigerian government. For instance, the Nigerian Central Bank Governor was recently sacked for whistleblowing that $20 billion in oil revenue was missing. Politicians and oil entrepreneurs benefit from the industry at the expense of these funds being effectively distributed to advance education, infrastructure, and human capital.
Challenges such as rising food costs, a weak healthcare infrastructure, and climate change make life for the average Nigerian harder, and the stagnant economic growth entails falling further behind. In 1980, 17.1 million people (19% of the population) lived in absolute poverty. That figure today is 112 million people (61%) despite sizeable growth in economic output. This massive growth in poverty and wealth inequality fuels resentment and contributes to the ongoing insurgency of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in the north and Niger-Delta militants in the south.
President Jonathan has done little to change the unequal economic structure of Nigeria, and has faced dwindling approval ratings in the absence of progress. In a nation deeply divided along Christian and Muslim lines, the anti-homosexuality bill was a rare opportunity to revive his flagging political fortunes. His gamble appeared to pay off as his approval rating increased overnight from an all-time low of 40% to a record 61% following the passage of the bill.
In Uganda, President Museveni has held onto power since 1986 and has amended the constitution along the way to allow him to stay in office, making him the 5th longest sitting African President. Once lauded as a visionary leader alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela of South Africa, his increasingly authoritative grip on power draws closer parallels to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Past elections in 2006 and 2011 were highlighted by the arrests of several prominent members of the opposition, disruptive military intimidation, and violence against dissent. With repeated attacks by government on free speech, the right to organize, and freedom of the press, the foundations of democracy have slowly been eroded.
Meanwhile, the position of Uganda in the East African community has suffered some setbacks. Initially leading the fight against HIV/AIDS in the 1990s before effective drug therapy was available and later with the help of PEPFAR, Uganda dropped its HIV/AIDS rate from 15% in 1991 to 6% in 2007. Now, despite a global decline in HIV incidence, Uganda stands out as one of the few countries documenting a resurgence of HIV, now affecting 7.3% of the population. Further, Uganda is facing a staggering youth unemployment rate of 84%, a deteriorating health infrastructure, and increasingly poor marks on human rights indicators.
With Museveni’s critics increasingly pointing out his failure to stem the erosion of progress by the Ugandan people, his response has been limited to intimidation and force. Such autocratic actions truncate the dynamic governance democracy is designed to instill. Looking to distract his people from his government’s failures, the anti-homosexuality bill proved effective in shoring up support in anticipation of Museveni’s run in 2016.
For both presidents, anti-homosexuality populism taps into a widely shared animosity against gays and has proved to be a shrewd political calculation that rallies rivals to their camps. Outcries from the West about human rights easily fall within the narrative of the bold African leader confronting neo-colonialism and advancing ‘African values’. Such charades further their claim to legitimacy while distracting their citizens from their widespread shortcomings in governance.
So while the West is right in condemning Nigeria and Uganda for their blatant disregard of human rights, it must understand that such violations are symptoms of a larger dysfunctional state and efforts to promote effective governance and balanced state institutions will go a long ways in protecting minority rights and modernizing their economies.
Anthony Natif is a pharmacist from Uganda and a graduate student in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington. Toyosi Adejumo a physician from Nigeria. Nathan Furukawa is a medical student at the University of Washington.