Living for love, dying because of hate: the rising tide of homophobia in Africa

Jean-Claude Roger Mbede died an untimely death on 10 January in his hometown, Ngoumou, Cameroon.

According to media reports, his family prevented him from receiving necessary medical treatment – leaving him fighting for his life whilst his lawyers fought in the courts to appeal his earlier conviction for “homosexuality”.

Human rights activists around the world were shocked and saddened by the news of Jean-Claude’s death. Amnesty International had been campaigning on his behalf for several years and previously named him a prisoner of conscience. During this time, the 34-year-old activist with a broad smile befriended many people at the organization.

Jean-Claude was one of many individuals who have been arrested and convicted in Cameroon under laws criminalizing sex between people of the same sex. He was arrested in March 2011 after sending a text to a man saying that he was in love with him.

Later convicted of “homosexuality and attempted homosexuality”, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. During his time in jail, he suffered from malnutrition and regular beatings. Although he was granted a provisional release on 16 July 2012 while his lawyer was appealing his case, the Yaoundé Court of Appeal then upheld his sentence. Fearing re-arrest and being forced to serve out the remainder of his sentence, Jean-Claude went into hiding.

Despite the ongoing legal appeal and international activism on his behalf, Jean-Claude sadly went to his grave as an outlaw, whose only “crime” was expressing his love.

Making love a crime

The Cameroonian authorities’ harsh treatment of LGBTI individuals like Jean-Claude, and his society’s callous indifference to their suffering – and even death – are indicative of a wider, and growing, problem in many African countries today.

Sex between adults of the same sex – often characterized as “unnatural carnal acts” or “acts against the order of nature” – is currently a crime in 31 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as all of North Africa. In four countries in the region, it carries the death penalty.

Last June, Amnesty International released a report about the rising levels of homophobia in the region. Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of same-sex conduct in sub-Saharan Africa looks at how “homosexual acts” are being increasingly criminalized across Africa as a number of governments seek to impose increased penalties or broaden the scope of existing laws, including by introducing the death penalty.

Besides Jean-Claude’s tragic death, recent developments in other countries have shown how the situation has worsened since then.

Nigeria’s draconian law

On Monday, LGBTI activists in Nigeria had their worst fears confirmed after the draconian Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed into law. While Nigerian law already criminalized “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with a punishment of up to 14 years’ imprisonment, and some northern states providing for the death penalty under Shari’a law, the deeply oppressive new law runs roughshod over the most basic freedoms.

With the stroke of a pen, President Goodluck Jonathan enacted legislation that not only criminalized ‘same-sex marriage’ – so widely defined as to include virtually any form of same-sex cohabitation – but criminalized the activities of many human rights and civil society organizations and entities. According to the Bill, anyone who “supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings” could face 10 years in prison.

This essentially turned Nigeria into one of the world’s least-tolerant societies.

On Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, blasted the law in a statement: “Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights. Rights to privacy and non-discrimination, rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention: this law undermines all of them.”

Since it came into effect, police in several Nigerian states have made scores of arrests under the law and at least 12 people are reportedly still in detention. Human rights defenders have told Amnesty International that the police in at least one state have drawn up a list of 167 people targeted for arrest based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI activists say that many of those currently in detention are being denied access to lawyers and other assistance.

The organization is calling for this witch-hunt to end and for Nigerian authorities to repeal the discriminatory law.

The coming storm in Uganda

Meanwhile in Uganda, LGBTI individuals and human rights activists continue to campaign against the country’s repressive Anti-Homosexuality Bill. On 20 December 2013, the Bill – first proposed in 2009 – was passed by Parliament in a surprise vote.

The full text of the Bill as passed has not yet been released; nonetheless, the passage amounts to a grave assault on human rights – dramatically increasing criminal penalties for consensual sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Like its counterpart in Nigeria, in addition to violating rights to privacy, family life and equality, the bill threatens freedom of association and expression – all of which are protected under Ugandan and international human rights law.

Other disturbing provisions of the draft Bill included criminalizing the “promotion” of homosexuality, compelling HIV testing in some circumstances, and imposing life sentences for “aggravated homosexuality” or entering into a same-sex marriage.

The knock-on effect of passing this Bill will reach far beyond LGBTI people in Uganda, impeding the legitimate work of civil society, public health professionals, and community leaders.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has the power to put an end to this wildly discriminatory legislation. Amnesty International is carrying out a global campaign to urge him to veto the Bill in its entirety and reaffirm Uganda’s commitment to upholding human rights.

Fighting the rising tide of hate

Though not directly linked, these recent developments in Cameroon, Nigeria and Uganda highlight the situation facing LGBTI people and activists in many parts of Africa today.

Yet across the continent, a large and growing number of activists and organizations continue to challenge these laws and to fight for the human rights of LGBTI people.

Amnesty International continues to join with them to fight to make sure that no one faces harassment, prison, or even death, just because of who they are and who they love.

Orginally published on LiveWire Blog on 16 January 2014


Urge Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to veto his country’s repressive Anti-Homosexuality Bill.