When former President Festus Mogae broke ranks with conservative African views on homosexuality, he probably did not see gay rights turning into an international diplomatic issue.
Since then, searing debate has ensued on the rights of gays and lesbians. On a two-day visit to Botswana last week, Reuben Brigetty II, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of African Affairs, spoke in terms that echoed Mogae’s.
“We have long held that gays and lesbians have fundamental rights,” he told this publication’s sister paper. “We don’t think it’s proper to have laws that discriminate people on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
Ahead of Brigetty II’s tour of duty in Botswana, debate on gay rights had risen a few decibels. British Prime Minister David Cameron set the new tone with threats to cut aid to countries that persecute homosexuals and refuse to adhere to “proper human rights”.
Speaking in Perth, Western Australia, at the Commonwealth Heads summit in October, Cameron said state-sponsored hostility to gays and lesbians would persist for years, notably in Africa.
Commonwealth leaders clashed over strengthening protections against prejudice and discrimination. A critical internal report into the Commonwealth’s future relevance demanded that all member states that outlawed homosexuality lift their bans.
“We are not just talking about it. We are also saying that British aid should have more strings attached,” Cameron said. “This is an issue where we are pushing for movement, we are prepared to put some money behind what we believe.”
Indeed, Britain, one of the world’s premier aid givers, has already started cracking down on countries it perceives as inimical to gay rights. Malawi has had some of its aid support suspended because of its attitude to gay rights. Following the country’s sentencing of two gay men to 14 years with hard labour, Britain clipped aid to Malawi by ┬ú19 million. The two men were later pardoned. Britain has further raised concerns over the issue of homosexuality with the Ugandan and Ghanaian governments.
The focus on gay rights assumed greater prominence ahead of Brigetty II’s visit to Botswana. United States President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered diplomatic missions and federal agencies outside America to strengthen efforts to fight international discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.
Indeed, gay rights appear to have become a new frontier in shaping diplomatic relations between Western and African governments. Like Britain, the US warned it would use foreign aid to push for gay rights to be decriminalised in Africa. “Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world,” Clinton told diplomats in Geneva. “Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality.”
Homosexual acts are illegal in most African countries, including key Western allies such as Botswana, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt.
Festus Mogae, who has stuck to a somewhat controversial tack among Africa’s leaders, believes it is difficult to promote safe sex when homosexuality ÔÇô alongside prostitution ÔÇô remains illegal. In a country where the majority of people turn up their noses at homosexually, Mogae’s is a radical view.
While most leaders on the continent have elected to remain tight-lipped on the issue, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has not. He condemned as “satanic” Cameron’s threat to cut aid to countries that do not respect gay rights. Homosexuals were “worse than pigs and dogs” the Zimbabwean leader said, adding a warning to the gay community: “We will punish you severely.”
In Zimbabwe, as in several other African conservative countries, those caught engaging in same-sex relationships face time in prison. On a continent where homosexuality is a taboo and considered inconsistent with traditional norms and values, anti-gay sentiments are a vote winner. Before he stepped down in 2008, Mogae studiously avoided backing calls to legalise homosexuality, fearing he would lose the presidency. In neighbouring Zambia, President Michael Sata’s soft stance on homosexuality threatened to damage his campaign ahead of polls that made him the country’s fifth president.
During a recent visit to Zambia, Henry Bellinham, Britain’s Africa Minister, sought to take the sting out of Cameron’s threats to cut aid to countries perceived to be hard on homosexuals. He said it was not Britain’s intention to force countries like Botswana, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ghana to adopt gay-friendly laws.
“The UK will always be sensitive to local traditions. Mr Cameron did not say that we will be tying aid to gay rights, never,” Bellingham insisted. “What he did say is that we do oversee where we have a big aid programme, it does give us the right to talk to governments not to persecute minorities be they religious, disabled or gay.”
Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, also sought to soften the effect of Cameron’s threat, insisting that the British Prime Minister had been misinterpreted.
Nevertheless, Mugabe was not alone in attacking the pro-gay sentiments from the West. Reacting sharply to Clinton, Ugandan presidential adviser john Neganda told the BBC: “That fellow [Mr Cameron] said the same thing. Now this woman [Clinton] is interfering. If the Americans think they can tell us what to do, they can go to hell.”
From the anti-gay lobby, what is clear is that sentiments against homosexuality in Botswana and elsewhere in Africa are shaped by both cultural and religious views. Christian evangelical groups have headed the campaign against homosexuality. “The evangelical lobby is very powerful and we know that they lobbied Uganda’s parliament in 2009 to introduce anti-gay legislation,” says the UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign group.
The evangelical Fellowship of Botswana, a coalition of evangelical churches, says like other African church leaders that homosexuality is “unethical and unbiblical”. Indeed, the Anglican Church in Botswana joined a growing list of African Anglican dioceses that have refused to recognise the consecration of Revd Gene Robinson as Bishop-Coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the United States, because of his sexual orientation. Bishop Robinson entered the history books last month when he was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop.
“The Anglicans in Botswana believe that the only valid marriage is between a man and a woman, and that is what the Bible teaches,” said Reverend Theophilus Naledi, Bishop of Botswana. “We do not condone any other sexual relationship or form of marriage that does not involve a man and a woman.”?He added that Anglicans in Botswana believe that sexual relationships between same sexes are “ungodly, unnatural, unbiblical and not in conformity with the Church’s teachings on the subject of marriages”.