There have been reports of persecution, prosecution, torture and jailing of gay persons in many African countries. These reports have shown that homosexuals have been jailed in Cameroun and in Senegal; gay persons have been flogged in Nigeria and in Ghana. Gays have been victims of extra judicial killings in Uganda and in Cameroun. The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh has threatened to slit the throat of gay persons.
The Nigerian branch of the Anglican Communion cut ties with their American counterparts following the latter’s recognition and ordination of a gay bishop. Many African countries, Nigeria, Gambia, Uganda, have introduced laws or have attempted to enact legislation against same gender marriage though laws prohibiting homosexuality exist in their statue book. So homosexuality has been a topical issue in recent times and has generated intense debate and controversy in many countries.
The debate has been charged because politicians, christian and islamic clerics and other members of the public have taken measures to stop and frustrate any initiative to recognize the human rights of gay people and legalize gay marriage. In many African countries there is stiff resistance often backed by faith groups to the paradigm shift in the way gay people are treated; there is a visible and vehement opposition to the wave of revolution in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity sweeping across the world particularly in western countries. This resistance has been propped and lubricated by misconceptions and misrepresentations of African cultures and traditions by African moral demagogues.
Several propositions have been put forward to justify the political, cultural and religious incorrectness of decriminalizing homosexuality and legalizing same sex marriage in Africa. The dominant claim is that homosexual practice and orientation is a western perverted lifestyle that was imported into the continent and must be resisted to preserve the African sexual and moral culture. Hence the often repeated expression that homosexuality is “unAfrican’; that same sex marriage is incompatible with African culture and religion. This notion was reechoed by the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta who told President Obama that the Kenya society did not accept homosexuality. In Nigeria, Uganda, Gambia, the debate has witnessed a revival of the anti-colonial mantra, an invocation of anti-western anti-imperialist narratives in order to rally support for the homophobic status quo in the countries and a legitimization of positions of hatred and intolerance of same sex relationships.
Interestingly, many Africans who oppose homosexuality and gay marriage very often allude to the existing anti-homosexual laws in the region, to the teachings of Christianity and Islam, which are foreign religions introduced by ‘western’ and Arab missionaries, and their own sense of what constitutes African culture to buttress their point. Of course, some western governments have tried to persuade some African leaders against tightening the laws against homosexuality or outlawing gay marriage. President Barak Obama has during his visit to Senegal and when he visited Kenya asked African governments to uphold the rights of gay people and end all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron has also urged African country members at the Commonwealth against the legitimization of homophobia and threatened to withhold aid from such countries.
However in some cases such as in Nigeria and Gambia, such pleas and threats have fallen on deaf ears. The presidents of these countries went ahead and signed into law bills that criminalize same gender marriage.
Unfortunately, the anti-gay rights campaigners have cited these moves western politicians as incontrovertible evidence of attempts by western governments to foist the alien sexual lifestyle on African people whose culture and religion do not permit homosexual practice. But a critical look at the situation in the region reveals so many contradictions and misrepresentations of issues. First of all the existing homophobic laws in different countries are actually a legacy of colonialism and western import, and not regulatory frameworks informed by local cultures and traditions. Following independence, many African countries retained some of the laws introduced during the colonial era or adopted and adapted the laws of their erstwhile colonizing countries mainly the laws of Britain and France. For instance, the law against homosexuality in the Nigerian Criminal Code was a provision under the British law which Nigeria adopted at the end of colonial rule. This is not to say that without the introduction by colonialists of legislations against homosexuality, there would be no traces of homophobia in African countries.
Certainly, like in other cultures, there are some anti-gay trends and attitudes because Africa is not culturally monolithic. But the fact remains that the legal homophobia in contemporary African countries has roots in imported colonial western and Arabic legal norms. The religious homophobia in the region has strong undercurrent of Christianity which was introduced by western missionaries and Islamic sharia law which was brought to the region by muslim scholars and jihadists.
Otherwise African societies have diverse and tolerant sexual, gender and marriage norms that accommodate gays, lesbians and transgendered people. But it is important to stress that secrecy governs issues related to sexuality in cultures across the region including sexual relationship between married couples. Many sexual habits are condoned as long as they are expressed in secret. Open discussion of sex is considered a taboo. Talks and discussions about sexual affairs are often couched in riddles, in idiomatic and proverbial terms. The public frowns at ‘manifest’ sexual behaviors and relationships. So knowledge about people’s ‘other’ sexual lifestyles is often transmitted through rumors and gossips and this includes information about persons having homosexual affairs. Another important issue is that Africans across cultures value children particularly in a situation where there is a high mortality rate. So when it comes to marriages, there is a lot of emphasis on procreation because it is through this means that families and societies grow, survive and save themselves from going into extinction. In fact giving birth to children is believed to be the essence of marriage and founding a family. So, heterosexual marriage is the norm.
However among the Igbos in the South East Nigeria, there are exceptions to the straight marriage rule, women can contract same gender marriages where they become the ‘husbands’ or wives as the case may be. The wives are described as women ‘married to women’. Usually elderly women who are infertile or widows who have no sons are culturally allowed to marry younger women and both of them live together as ‘husbands’ and wives. The couple would agree on the man who would impregnate the wives and as usually the case, the children would bear the family name of the husband. This practice predates colonialism and has continued to exist ever since in Igbo communities. The definition of marriage under the colonial constitution as a union between a man and woman has not changed this marriage practice. This same gender marriage practice obtains in post-colonial Igbo societies despite the over layers of imported legal Christian and Islamic homophobia and demonstrates the ambivalence in African cultural and sexual practices which is not often reflected in the ongoing debates on homosexuality in the region.