Naveena Kottoor on the rising tide of politicised homophobia in East Africa.
Kenya’s lgbt+ people had cause for celebration earlier this year. In February the country’s supreme court issued a landmark ruling affirming their right to associate. For almost a decade, the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (nglhrc) had fought for the right to register as an organisation under Kenyan law. But the joy that came with the decision was short-lived. “The judgement was a step in the right direction but it created turmoil,” Imani Kimiri, the nglhrc’s head of legal affairs, tells monocle. While the judiciary had followed the principles of the rule of law, the two other branches of government, the executive and the legislature, reacted with outright hostility. Kenya’s president, William Ruto, criticised the ruling and members of parliament began to discuss legislation to counter it, while calling on the supreme court to review its decision. Since then parliament has drawn up the Family Protection Bill, which proposes a ban on activities that “promote homosexuality”.
According to Kimiri, politicians are stoking homophobia to distract Kenyans from issues such as corruption and inflation. Ruto is facing a foreign-debt crisis that has forced his government to delay payments to public servants. The Kenyan shilling has been sliding against the dollar, increasing the cost of servicing the country’s debt, which stands at about €65bn. Meanwhile, the opposition has been calling for weekly demonstrations to protest against the rising cost of living. It is in this context that homophobia has reared its ugly head again.
Across Kenya’s western border, things have taken an even more sinister turn. In May, Uganda passed a law that includes life imprisonment for anyone convicted of homosexuality. Volker Türk, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, described the legislation as “probably among the worst of its kind in the world”. Frank Mugisha, executive director of rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda, sees a pattern emerging. “Politicians have been handed a silver bullet to use for their failures,” he tells monocle. Gay, lesbian and transgender people are facing “blackmail and extortion by law-enforcement officials”, he says.
While Europe has reacted to rising homophobia in East Africa by pursuing “silent diplomacy”, the US has acted more decisively. In May it imposed travel restrictions on Ugandan officials and issued a travel warning for US citizens who identify as lgbt1. In August the World Bank announced that it will halt new loans to Kampala; soon afterwards, the Ugandan shilling plunged.
Kimiri wants similar action to be taken against Kenya. “Don’t put money in people’s pockets,” she says, pointing to the importance of the country’s €1.9bn tourism industry. Kimiri and Mugisha also want foreign governments to target the finances of outside actors, such as US evangelical churches, which have been accused of sponsoring homophobia here. Mugisha also says that African countries that have put in place progressive rights and protections for lgbt1 people, such as South Africa, should play a more active role. He has received death threats and has considered fleeing Uganda but has stayed out of a sense of responsibility to his compatriots.
Kimiri tells monocle that the nglhrc is betting on advocacy to halt the rise of homophobia in Kenya. “When the courts are progressing, we have to ensure that society is not left behind,” she says. People are risking their lives in the region. The rest of the world must not abandon East Africans to fight for progress alone.