By FRANKIE EDOZIEN,
Amsterdam News West Africa Bureau | Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013 10:10 am
The Nigerian House of Assembly voted Thursday to ban same sex marriage and impose jail terms of 10 -14 years for those convicted.
The measure passed unanimously and with no debate or discussion, merely a voice vote.
The vote occurred the same day that a cache of weapons that allegedly belonged to Hezbollah and was stored in preparation for attacks on Western targets – was discovered by the Nigerian army.
Representatives of Nigeria’s 160 million residents also voted to ban organizations that support its gay and lesbian citizens and criminalized public displays of affection by same gender couples.
The Associated Press reported that a copy of the house bill had no changes made to it from the November 2011 bill the Nigerian senate passed that imposed 14-year sentences for gay couples who tie the knot or anyone who witnesses such nuptials.
The bill now awaits the signature of President Goodluck Jonathan to become law or his veto to scuttle it.
His spokesman were mum on the issue, as were most Western embassy spokespeople in the aftermath of the surprise vote.
Human rights activists in Nigerian only learned of the vote hours after it happened with one telling the A.P. that a court challenge is likely if it get’s the president’s signature.
“If that’s the scope, there will be serious issues,” Chidi Odinkalu, the chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission said.
Western human rights groups abroad were quick to cry foul. This bill makes discrimination against LGBTI people the law of the land,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “We call on President Jonathon to respect international human rights by refusing to sign this bill into law.”
“Nigeria’s elected officials are obliged, and have in fact sworn, to protect the basic rights of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation,” added Santiago Canton, director of RFK Partners for Human Rights at the RFK Center.
“This bill represents a breach of Nigeria’s domestic and international legal obligations.”
The bill if signed into law could also affect funding for groups that combat the huge HIV/AIDS problem in Nigeria. The U.S. government funds a number of treatment programs there.
Back in 2011 President Barack Obama, directed that the support from the United States Agency for International Development U.S.A.I.D., did not support governments that discriminate against its sexual minorities and Nigeria has one of the world’s largest populations of people living with HIV.
The president’s directive asked officials to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of gays, lesbians and the transgendered. That included having diplomats “combat the criminalization” of being gay.
Nigeria’s substantial oil revenues make its lawmakers immune to threats of getting aid cut off from Western nations and the issue is likely to follow President Obama on his Africa trip at the end of June.
Two of the countries Obama will visit – Senegal and Tanzania have laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality but the third, South Africa is the one country on the African that has full marriage equality
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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN
MAY 20 1012
ACCRA, Ghana — The endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples by Barack Obama, the African-descended president of the United States, has struck some observers as a political calculation, others as courageous and some here in Africa as outrageous.
But might Mr. Obama’s words have also inspired an African head of state to change her country’s course?
Just nine days after Mr. Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage rights, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, denounced the continued persecution of gays and lesbians in her country. “Indecency and unnatural acts laws shall be repealed,” Mrs. Banda said in her first state-of-the-nation speech on Friday, according to The Associated Press.
There are certainly other motivations pushing Mrs. Banda to support gay equality. In her address, for instance, she noted that her government seeks to normalize relations with “our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws.”
Malawi is a small country, with up to 60 percent of its 15.4 million people living below the poverty line. So when Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recently threatened to cut off aid to countries that violate the civil rights of gays and lesbians, it likely resonated with Mrs. Banda. One of her very first acts was to devalue the currency by a third to appease the International Monetary Fund and restore funding.
Standing up for sexual minorities and publicly attempting to decriminalize homosexuality hasn’t been a priority of the current crop of elected African leaders. Last summer, after increased visibility and vilification of Ghana’s gays and lesbians, President John Atta Mills proudly rejected Mr. Cameron’s call for decriminalization, to the cheers of many here.
Mr. Mills said, “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana.” And even in South Africa, a beacon of gay rights internationally, activists are fighting a proposal from the House of Traditional Leaders to remove the term “sexual orientation” from section 9(3) of the South African Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against myriad categories of citizens.
So Mrs. Banda, 62, a mother of two, is bucking a trend. And the reaction to her proposals will be interesting. African culture generally demands respect for elders and mothers, so rebukes may not be easily forthcoming.
Still, it will take an act of Parliament to change those “bad laws,” and whether she can convince lawmakers to do so is an open question. Two years ago, Malawi made international headlines when two men were sentenced to 14 years in prison for celebrating their union. That ruling was widely condemned by Western nations and international organizations — including donors. Mrs. Banda’s predecessor ultimately pardoned the couple
Then-President Bingu wa Mutharika, nonetheless, declared they had “committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws.” Mrs. Banda’s is not an isolated voice, however. Last year, Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, who championed providing H.I.V. medication to all who needed it, joined an African elder statesman, Kenneth Kaunda, a former Zambian president, to urge decriminalization of homosexuality.
They went to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, in June 2011 as part of their campaign to reduce H.I.V. transmission. “We can preach about behavioral change, but as long as we confine gays and lesbians into dark corners because of our inflexibility to accommodate them, the battle on H.I.V. and AIDS can never be won,” Mr. Mogae said. He admitted to the BBC that he hadn’t risked losing an election by trumpeting gay rights during his years in office, from 1998 to 2008, but he said he had never sought to arrest gays either.
Mr. Kaunda, who was in office from 1964 to 1991, said, “We are not only condemning African leaders who are criminalizing same-sex marriage, but we are urging them to start recognizing these people, for the sake of H.I.V. and AIDS.”
Mrs. Banda is the first African leader to respond with action. She was Mr. Mutharika’s vice president when he died in office in April. She stepped in to serve out his term, which ends in 2014.
In Ghana, Mr. Obama’s words were soothing to the small but vocal community of gay rights activists. And around the continent, and in the West, gay and lesbian Africans are increasingly tossing off the veil to proclaim their right to exist.
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August 30 2011
By Frankie Edozien
On particular midweek nights, throngs of men and women gather at a few particular clubs to dance the night away to pulsating beats, and sometimes live music. The men dance provocatively close to each other, with reckless abandon. The few women around do the same with each other. Kisses are even exchanged.
At seaside dance parties where beer and reggae flow to all and sundry, it’s no longer uncommon for men and women in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, to test the waters and try to pick up companions of the same sex. Even in conservative Ghana, it seems that gays and lesbians are taking steps out in the public domain, at least at night.
But like elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, a backlash to that new openness has erupted as well. Since late May, it has spilled out onto the radio. Hours are spent debating whether gays should be allowed to exist here. Then Ghanaians wake up to national headlines screaming that gays and lesbians are dirty and sinful and ought to be locked up.
The pattern is becoming a familiar one throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As evangelical Christianity has seen its fastest growth on the continent, gay communities have simultaneously grown more open. The parallel developments have led to a growing list of countries in which politicians and media outlets have both incited and exploited social panic around sexuality. In the late 1990s, a beleaguered Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe drew global attention as he invited violence against gay people and blamed the country’s growing troubles on the European deprivation he said they symbolized. Since then, similar moments have struck in places stretching across the continent. Most recently, Uganda has been embroiled in controversy over a proposed law that would, among other things, allow the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality. The authors of that law are closely tied to the U.S. religious right.
Now, this West African nation is having its own gay-dialogue moment and, once again, much of it has been unsavory, with religious leaders and some politicians stoking the flames.
“Gay bashing had never been a feature of the Ghanaian social landscape until, oh, I would say the last 10-15 years. And it came with the evangelical Christians,” says Nat Amartefio, 67, a historian, lifelong resident and former mayor of Accra.
“It’s these evangelicals who are looking for Satan everywhere, in everybody’s drawers, who have created this specter of an expanding gay universe. In all fairness, maybe they see things that those of us who are not involved cannot see. But they are the ones who are driving this hysteria,” Amartefio adds.
The recent hysteria began when a front-page article in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest circulation newspaper, claimed that organizations doing health work in two regions had “registered” 8,000 gays—many supposedly infected with HIV. The claim was taken from a participant in a workshop for health workers to assist them in dealing with patients with sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV. The U.S. government, through its Agency for International Development, sponsored the training.
Religious leaders took to the radio to denounce the gays and ask the government to intervene, with one cleric saying he didn’t want Almighty Allah to destroy Africa. The Bureau of National Intelligence claimed it was investigating, and one Presbyterian leader branded gays as “unbiblical, un-African, abnormal and filthy.”
Each week in June brought a slew of new headlines with one legislator, David Tetteh warning that gays could be lynched like robbers.
”You cannot trace this act to any of the settings in Ghana. So this is foreign and I am I saying that Ghanaians cherish our culture a lot so for anybody to adulterate the cultural setting in Ghana … I have the fear that people could take the law into their hands in future and deal with this people drastically,” he suggested to a local journalist.
The “un-African” claim has recurred in each anti-gay backlash that’s hit the content, despite mounds of historical research showing that, in fact, gay and lesbian people have been part of many African cultures for centuries. Rather, homophobia was imported with European colonialism—and today’s growth in evangelical Christianity. Amartefio and other noted Ghanaian intellectuals have pointed out that gay men have been in the society from time immemorial and are sometimes referred to as ‘Kodjo Besia.’
Despite the rhetoric, Amartefio believes the moment will pass quietly. He doesn’t expect a “kill the gays” bill like what was proposed in Uganda. “I don’t believe it will lead to an open pogrom. There just are so many gays in this society who are in all walks of life, in all stations of society who don’t draw any attention because nobody is looking out for them.”
But the daily newspapers trumpeted a different perspective—the voices of those most virulently opposed to sexual freedom. Breda Atta-Quayson, a Daily Graphic deputy editor who wrote many of the headlines that had “Homos” in bold type, says the paper has no anti-gay agenda but wants the issue discussed openly.
“Unfortunately the stories we are getting are the ‘negative’ ones. But it’s not that we are putting it there because we are anti-gay,” he told Colorlines.com. “That is why we have refrained from even writing editorials. We wanted it to be in the public domain for discussion.”
Nana Banyin Dadson, a senior editor at Graphic Communications, adds that interest is high. “Editors are supposed to have a pulse of readership. It is what is strange that sells. It’s strange because this is the first time that it has come up as a subject of discussion openly.”
Against the onslaught from the religious leaders in the media, however, very few voices for LGBT rights could be heard.
One popular radio journalist, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, spoke out and devoted two articles supporting Ghana’s gay community. The response was vitriolic. He was called gay himself and many wrote in response that was the reason he had gone through a divorce.
“One of the jobs of the journalist is to give voice to the voiceless and one of the most deprived people in this country—in terms of voice—is the gay community in the country and I’m more than delighted to speak for them,” Dadzie says.
The former country director of Journalist for Human Rights adds that the piling on is a direct result of poverty. “If I struggle to get one meal a day and I have a band of homosexuals coming into my community and I’ve been told that this band of homosexuals cause God to come and take away the single plate of food that I have, I would fight,” Dadzie says.
Ghana has a high unemployment and nearly 30 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook.
Accra resident Atta-Quayson, 59, says the frenzied coverage is ultimately good. “This topic is going to lead into a liberal society. Now that it is coming to the fore, a lot of people will want to find out what it is. Even though the religious right is so anti-gay.”
Dadzie believes that as the country grows more prosperous, society will be more open. He’s putting together a “coalition of the willing” to challenge the current interpretation of the unlawful carnal knowledge law, which criminalizes homosexual sex acts.
“We’re not going to get to the point of same sex marriages soon, but we’d get to a point where people will decide, ‘He’s gay so what.’ Maybe when I’m dead and gone we can get to same sex marriages,” Dadzie jokes, “but I’ll be surprised if in my lifetime we talk about same sex marriages in this country.”
Still, gay Ghanaians interviewed by Colorlines said they are waiting for the government to offer some protection and leadership in turning down the volume.
“This is what we are praying for,” says one corporal in the army, who has lived with a partner for two years. They would like to move openly into the barracks one day, where the accommodation is free. But for now, freedom on the dance floor is the only option. To see more and comment click here.
Frankie Edozien is a New York City-based journalist who is the director of New York University’s Reporting Africa program.