THE “burn” and “kill homosexuals” chants are going silent in Africa.
Over most of the year, wherever you looked, anti-gay hysteria seemed to be sweeping the continent; famously in Uganda, in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and The Gambia, the leaders and their supporters were baying for the blood of homosexuals. (READ: So far in 2014: Events that caused Africa big heartbreaks, outrage, or raised eyebrows).
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni signed a much-criticised “anti-gay” law that prescribed life imprisonment for homosexuals. That was the watered-down version. The first one made it a crime attracting many years in prison, to know that someone was gay and not report it to the authorities. Even parents would have been jailed for not turning in their gay children.
Recently, though, Uganda’s constitutional court overturned the law, ruling it had been wrongly passed in parliament.
In Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan signed a law prohibiting same-sex marriages.
Gambian president Yahya Jammeh is to sign a law that was passed in September by the country’s parliament that criminalises homosexuality and punishes gay people with life imprisonment.
But the real uproar came earlier in February when Jammeh, compared homosexuals to “vermin”.
“We will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” he said in February, during a speech on state television to mark the 49th anniversary of the country’s independence.
However, last week Museveni signalled he was having second thoughts over tough anti-homosexuality legislation that social conservatives in his ruling party are trying to bring back to Parliament after the constitutional court struck the earlier one down. (READ: Anti-gay bill could cost us economically, Uganda president Museveni warns).
Museveni argued that Uganda needed to consider the impact of a new law on trade and economic growth.
In a newspaper opinion piece Museveni said he only signed off on the anti-gay law earlier in the year because he wanted to protect children and stop people being “recruited” into homosexuality.
But he said that although Uganda could endure aid cuts, it would be badly hit by a trade boycott.
Museveni said Uganda now needed to take stock of its national interests in deciding what to do next.
“It is about us deciding what is best for our country in the realm of foreign trade, which is such an important stimulus for growth and transformation that it has no equal,” he said, raising fears over “the possibility of trade boycott by Western companies under the pressure of the homosexual lobbies in the West.”
The president, officially aged 70 (critics claim he is six years older) and one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, said he had been in touch with David Bahati, an MP with extreme social views and key architect of the legislation, and told him to link him up with “delegations of business people” to “discuss and see how to resolve this issue”.
Last month during a visit to the US, Museveni faced humiliation twice, when two hotels couldn’t accommodate him or host his events.
“My people made hotel bookings for me, but homosexuals blocked it,” a statement from his office said read.
No handsome pay off
The bigger problem, however, seemed that the homophobic African leaders have not earned a handsome anti-gay dividend. To begin with, the timing of their decisions to whip anti-homosexual sentiment was puzzling. Whether it be Jonathan, Museveni, Jammeh, or Mugabe, none of them had an election coming up even in the year, thus they could not have harvested the social-conservative vote. And none of these countries has an actively open gay scene.
Secondly, all the gay-bashing governments have leaders or ruling parties that are either so dominant they don’t risk electoral defeat, or where they are vulnerable, they make it up by regularly stealing elections. The homophobic drumbeats were not going to give them votes they couldn’t fiddle.
Nothing shifted for the better. In fact matters got worse. Zimbabwe’s economy continued its slide into the dumps.
The anti-gay bonanza in Abuja didn’t distract enough from the losses the Nigerian government was suffering at the hands of Boko Haram militants, nor help blow away the failure by the regime to rescue the over 200 schoolgirls abducted by the terrorists in the northeast of the country in mid-April.
In Uganda, Museveni saw foreign investment shrivel, and the massive moneys needed to kick-start the country’s oil industry stalled.
Part of the anti-gays drive, was also a way by which African leaders were sticking it up to the west (which hectors and lectures them on governance and freedom), and embracing China (which holds its nose and gets on with business silently) that early this year seemed to be the salvation to every African problem.
But, with a slowdown in China, slowly common sense and pragmatism seems to be returning to Africa, as leaders realise that Beijing might be Santa Claus for them, yes, but like Santa Beijing also comes along only once in a year.
While anti-gay and lesbian attitudes will remain high in most of Africa, those who were raving about it being “corrupting, unAfrican and deviant sexual” behaviour over the last nine months have finally faced a simple truth: You can’t eat anti-homosexuality slogans.