Why African Homophobia is Still the Real Western Import

African political leaders and religious zealots (both Christian and Muslim) have used homophobia as a tool for political and religious power for many years. They say that same-sex relations and gay rights are imports from the west. They have used homophobia to portray themselves as nationalists and defenders of African and religious values. They have used homophobia to frighten and divide people to mobilize popular support and votes.

But it is homophobia, as others have said before me, that is the real import from the West. And the whole panoply of weapons employed by the homophobes in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa are themselves colonial imports, ranging from sodomy laws that were a legacy of colonial rule to the parliaments that pass these laws.

And homophobia is growing stronger in Africa. In mid-March of 2023, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was quoted by the Monitor newspaper website as saying that the “Western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by imposing their social practices on us.” And Kenyan President William Ruto declared at the same time that “our culture and religion does not allow same-sex marriages.”

On April 2, 2023, Museveni called upon African leaders to reject “the promotion of homosexuality” and said homosexuality was “a big threat and danger to the procreation of human race.” He said, “Africa should provide the lead to save the world from this degeneration and decadence, which is really very dangerous for humanity. If people of opposite sex stop appreciating one another then how will the human race be propagated.”

On December 29, 2023, Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye said at an event in the country’s eastern Cankuzo Province, where he answered questions from journalists and members of the public, that powerful nations “should keep” their aid if it comes with an obligation to give rights to LGBTQ+ persons: “For me, I think that if we find these people in Burundi they should be taken to stadiums and stoned, and doing so would not be a crime.”

In Ghana, parliamentarians have been debating the Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values bill since August 2021. Same-sex relations are already punishment by up to three years in jail under current law, but this new bill will introduce punishment for even identifying as LGBTQ+. It will also criminalize being transgender and includes jail sentences of up to 10 years for advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. On February 28, 2024, the Ghanaian parliament passed the bill, imposing three-year prison terms for people convicted of identifying as gay, five-year terms for people convicted of organizing gay rights groups or “promoting” gay rights, and five-year terms for anyone convicted of engaging in gay sex. The bill has not yet been sent to President Nana Akufo-Addo for his signature.

John Dramani Mahama, the former president of Ghana and leading presidential candidate of the National Democratic Congress, said during a meeting with members of the clergy in eastern Ghana that gay marriage and being transgender were against his Christian beliefs. “The faith I have will not allow me to accept a man marrying a man, and a woman marrying a woman,” Mahama said while responding to a church leader’s call against LBGTQ+ people. “I don’t believe that anyone can get up and say I feel like a man although I was born a woman and so I will change and become a man,” he added.  Mahama did not say whether or not he would sign the anti-LGBTQ+ bill should he win the presidential election in December 2024.

In Kenya, opposition parliamentarian Peter Kaluma introduced the Family Protection Bill. The draft of the bill, which was seen by Reuters, mirrors many aspects of the Ugandan law and would punish gay sex with prison for up to ten years or even death in some cases. The new bill is “cut from the same cloth” as the Ugandan legislation, said  Kevin Muiruri, a Nairobi-based lawyer. The bill is now being vetted by a parliamentary committee, which can then refer it to the full chamber for a vote. And Kenyan President William Ruto, an evangelical Christian, has already endorsed the legal repression of LGBTQ+ rights. “We cannot travel down the road of women marrying their fellow women and men marrying their fellow men,” he declared in March 2023.

And in April 2024, Constant Mutamba, a member of the National Assembly in the Democratic Republic of Congo and leader of the Dynamic Progressive Revolutionary Opposition platform (the main opposition party in the country) introduced a bill to impose prison sentences of five to 10 years on anyone who “commits a homosexual act (including acts and gestures).”

It would be simplistic to explain everything as the result of external actors, said Barbara Bompani in a October 26, 2023 article in the Review of African Political Economy. And she is quite correct to insist on the primacy of internal factors and actors. But American right-wing evangelical Christians clearly play a key role in mobilizing, organizing, supporting, and funding homophobic groups and individuals in Africa. This has already caused enormous damage in a number of African countries. And all the signs point in the direction of greater legal persecution and violence against LGBTQ+ people in Africa.

African homophobes say they are standing up to the West and saving the continent and the world from homosexuality, but they are just serving their own selfish interests and the interests of right-wing Christian nationalists in the West. Gay communities in Africa and the West share a common interest in fighting back, and civil society groups and all genuine supporters of human rights are increasingly active. The decision of the Biden administration to suspend Uganda from the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act was a good first step, but people in the United States and around the world need to press for further action. As Eric Gilari, an LGBTQ+ activist in Kenya said, “one day we shall defeat these assaults on our human rights and triumph in equality and inclusion for LGBTQ persons within African countries. This ideal must be our guiding light in this moment of darkness and tears.”

This article was excerpted from a more detailed article that was posted on the website of the African Security Research Project.

Daniel Volman is the Director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC (www.africansecurity.org), and a specialist on US national security policy toward Africa and African security issues.