Two weeks ago, the Ugandan parliament passed one of the harshest anti-LGBTQI laws in the world. And almost immediately, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary issued a statement to condemn it. I agree with what she said in her official statement. Calling for the death of people based on their sexuality is wild and primitive. However, what I want to do in this piece is provide a nuanced understanding of homophobia in Africa.
It seems to me that one of the reasons America-Africa relations have waned in recent years is the constant push for Africa to pass gay rights. African leaders like the late Robert Mugabe have told America and the West that homosexuality has no place in Africa. It seems ill-advised for the president of a poor country to dare America in such a manner given that America is the world’s biggest superpower. It only makes sense for any country, especially a poor one, to want to be an ally of the United States. But over the years, the US and Africa have drifted apart even though Africa is the land of unquantifiable mineral resources. With the climate change zeitgeist and the push to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, one would have expected that the US would be the largest investor in Africa to mine minerals like cobalt which is in large deposits in countries like DR Congo. Interestingly, China has become the biggest investor in Africa. China in fact controls the entire supply chain of renewable minerals like Cobalt in Africa. Right from exploiting poor Africans and even children to mine these minerals in horrible artisanal conditions, China is involved all the way in the processing and sale of Cobalt to tech companies in the US. A few decades ago, the US would have done anything to have access to these minerals.
Source: New York Times
Given all the mutual benefits America and Africa stand to enjoy from closer bilateral relations, both parties, especially Africa, seem unfazed. And I think gay rights have somewhat contributed to this schism. When you think of America’s foreign policy today, it’s centred around the promotion of climate change policies, women and LGBTQ rights. It’s less about peacekeeping and interventionist policies like the liberation of oppressed people from tyrannical dictators or war against terrorism and corruption on foreign soil. I can also understand why the US is becoming less interventionist when you think about the constant flak it gets for invading countries like Libya and Iraq.
In any case, Africans do not like it when the US and other Western powers try to force gay rights on them. That only makes African leaders want to double down. The average African is homophobic all thanks to culture and religion. Most Africans practice puritanical Christianity and Islam and that alone makes them intolerant of the LGBTQ. I hate to say it but it is what it is. So, when African governments pass anti-gay laws, it is congruent with the culture of homophobia in Africa. In my country Nigeria, you can spend up to 14 years in prison for committing homosexual acts. If you sample the opinion of most Nigerians, they will probably tell you that the punishment for homosexuality is not harsh enough. So, what should African governments do when overwhelmingly, African people are themselves homophobic?
If you check the comment section of YouTube videos of some of the interviews African leaders have granted with foreign journalists who questioned them on gay rights, you will see a lot of praise Africans shower on their leaders never minding how the same leaders have impoverished them for decades. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say I am a critic of bad governance in Africa. I believe our leaders need to be held accountable for the damage they’ve done to us. But the West needs to understand the complexities of homophobia in Africa. It isn’t that African leaders are just behaving like tyrants when they sign these laws; though most African leaders arguably are tyrants. Their stance against gay rights is a reflection of what the African culture tolerates. Also, no leader wants to sabotage their chances of re-election. Even if they are pro-LGBTQ, it would be suicidal for them to publicly advocate for gay rights. If they did, it either could lead to widespread rioting or a colossal loss during the next election.
So, if African people are very clear that they do not want gay rights, in the spirit of democracy, why is the US constantly expressing disappointment? That comes off to African people as disingenuous and hypocritical. Democracy is supposed to be about the people. Not about what the US wants or not. When it matters the most, Africans feel the US never comes to their aid. But every time it is about anti-gay laws, the US issues statements and condemnation at the speed of light. That comes off to most Africans as very insincere. Africa has incredibly corrupt governments. Africa has massive insecurity problems. In my country Nigeria, we have Boko Haram. What has the US done to help tackle these problems? So, you can see why most Africans would feel that the US is not interested in helping Africa. Gay rights, it seems, matter more to the US than helping to fight poverty or insecurity for instance.
It is also hypocritical of the US to force gay rights on African countries because it wasn’t long ago they had gay rights. Here is an uncomfortable truth. The type of human rights that exist in a country is tied to that country’s level of socioeconomic development. Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs is an appropriate analogy here. When a country lacks basic necessities, the last thing they want is gay rights. Africa is a poor continent and is it any surprise that out of 54 countries, only 5 have legalised gay rights?
Source: AP News
This is also true of issues such as climate change, animal rights, and ecological conservation. The people and governments of Africa do not prioritise these things because there’s bigger fish to fry. Again, the US and other Western powers did not always care about these issues too. It was a process. First, America had to abolish slavery. And then black people had to fight for civil rights. And then feminists fought for women’s rights. And then abortion rights. And then gay rights. It’s a slow and dispensational process. Of course, one could argue that Africa doesn’t have to repeat the historical wrongs of other countries in terms of human rights violations. Africa could simply learn from America. But that is simply unrealistic. For Africans to begin to care about these things, they need to attain socioeconomic growth and development.
On the flip side, it is ridiculous that African governments are banning gay rights. I wonder how this law will provide for Ugandans or how it is going to fix their economy. I understand that it was passed possibly to cause distraction from the failure of the Ugandan government. I get the politics of that.
But if the West cares so much about ending homophobia in Africa, then this is the wrong move. What the US should do is help fight poverty and bad governance in Africa first. The richer Africans become, the more likely they are to begin to care about things like climate change and gay rights. Otherwise, America will continue to come off to Africans as hypocritical.
Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela’s discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday.