Gay Rights Remain A Legal Pain Across Africa

Written by Andrew Friedman

In November eight people were arrested, detained and tortured in Gambia as part of a “crackdown on homosexuality”, while on the east side of the continent, Ugandan legislatures have promised to bring back an internationally reviled anti-homosexuality bill that, rather than explicitly referring to homosexuality uses the horrific euphemism “unnatural acts.”

This is the context in which The Advocate, an American LGBT-interest magazine, released a report on “The State of LGBT Equality in Africa.”

While most states do not rise to the levels of Gambian and Ugandan authorities, the report is rather damning, saying “homophobia thrives in most countries in Africa, making the continent an oppressive place to live for countless LGBT people.”

The Worst Of The Worst

According to the report, there are three African countries that call for the death penalty for same sex sexual contact. These three countries are Mauritania, Nigeria and Sudan. While often not using the term homosexuality, these country’s criminal codes prescribe capital punishment for offenses such as “crimes against nature,” “sodomy” and “buggery.”

It is important to note that, as we reported here at AFK Insider, capital punishment has recently been banned by a regional court decision in Nigeria, and while the criminal code needs to catch up to the reality, the country has ceased to execute individuals for any offenses including same-sex sexual contact.

While they are the most draconian in their punishments, these three countries are far from the only ones that criminalize same sex sexual contact. Another 29 countries across the continent criminalize such contact and prescribe jail time for the offense. A further four countries punish such contact with hard labor.

Between the three countries that allow for capital punishment, the four that allow for hard labor and the 29 that carry exclusively jail sentences, an astounding 36 of the continent’s 54 countries, or two thirds, criminalize same sex sexual contact.

Anecdotal events over the last year also lend themselves to the conclusion that an immensely problematic environment exists for LGBT individuals across the continent.

According to the report, Cameroon arrested more people on suspicion of homosexuality than any other country in the world.

Is Drinking Bailey’s Gay?

The report also details a human rights attorney in the West African state who said that “judges in the central African nation rely heavily on stereotypes when determining if a suspect is gay.” The lawyer went further, detailing “a suspect who…allegedly drunk Bailey’s liqueur [and saw] that information admitted as evidence of their homosexuality. ”

Morocco, long seen as relatively liberal due to its proximity to Europe and popularity as a tourist destination, joined in on the repression, arresting a 70 year old British citizen and holding him for nearly three weeks for an alleged gay encounter.

The oppression above, however devastating, is only that that comes from official, state-sanctioned violence. It says nothing of the all-too-common culture of impunity that exists around violence against and torment of homosexuals that is often perpetrated by both the state and individuals.

In the Equatorial Guinea, itself a haven for human rights violations and corruption of all stripes and the newly designated host country of the Cup of Nations, even though same sex sexual contact is not technically illegal, persecution is still commonplace.

In one story from the report, four youths were recently forced by police to explain themselves for allegedly having gay sex. The police interviews were broadcast on national television.”

While the report lists South Africa, with its extensive anti-discrimination laws that include protections for LGBT individuals and marriage equality, things are not perfect for homosexuals within the country. A no lower source than the country’s President, Jacob Zuma, has spoken out extensively against homosexuality, saying gay marriage and adoption would be “a disgrace” to both the country and God.

There is some indication of Zuma changing course on the matter. After the country legalized same sex marriage he seemed to publicly accept the decision, saying “‘We have a constitution that is very clear that we all respect, which I respect,” and “that gay marriage is a constitutionally accepted thing in South Africa. So no matter what [his] views would be,” it does not matter.

First Openly Gay Minister

Zuma also appointed the country’s first openly gay minister earlier this year, making Lynne Brown the Public Enterprises Minister in his cabinet.

Despite Zuma’s about face, there is no real indication that things are getting better in legal systems across the continent. According to a report by World Politics Review, legislators in a wide variety of countries are looking to follow Uganda’s lead and strengthen already harsh anti-LGBT legislation rather than soften or abolish such laws.

A Pew Research poll from June of 2013 finds a lack of societal acceptance and slow progress, with South Africa leading African countries surveyed in acceptance of homosexuality at a miniscule 32 percent. While this number increases slightly among youth, with 18-29 year olds accepting homosexuality at a 35% clip compared to 28% for those over 50, it is still very low.

Other countries surveyed are troubling, with only 1% of Nigerians, 3% of Senegalese and Ghanaians, 4% of Ugandans and 8% of Kenyans saying that society should accept homosexuality.

The Advocate report paints a troubling picture of LGBT rights across the African continent. This picture is backed up both by laws and state violence and a culture of impunity that allows for homophobia and non-state-sanctioned violence against homosexuals.

Despite a tremendous and accurate “Africa Rising” narrative, the continent continues to lag behind much of the world in many areas of human rights, with LGBT rights at the top of the list.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.