An anti-gay crackdown is gripping East Africa

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Kenya, like its neighbours, is in the grip of a brutal cost of living crisis, and is facing its worst drought in four decades. However, activists say those issues have been pushed to the back-burner. Instead, leaders across the political spectrum unite to unleash a campaign of “state-sponsored homophobia“.

Njeri Gateru, executive director of the Nairobi-based National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), a nonprofit group, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). She warned that:

There is a concerted effort in peddling misinformation and disinformation…

The sentiments that have been carried over in the public space inspire and justify violence against LGBTQ.

Colonial legacy

Homosexuality is illegal in many East African countries, which have a history of stigmas against gay people. This is often encouraged by conservative religious elements.

In Kenya and Tanzania, gay sex remains a crime under colonial-era laws. The penalties include prison terms of up to 14 years. Convictions are rare, however. Despite the legal threats against homosexuality, gay rights groups have been allowed to operate in Kenya, unlike in neighbouring nations such as Somalia.

However, the laws have made LGBTQ+ people in Kenya easy prey for police harassment and online attacks. And conditions have worsened since the most recent wave of homophobia took hold. NGLHRC recorded 117 attacks in Kenya against people seen to be LGBTQ+ last month. This is up from 78 in January.

Read on...

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‘Living in fear’

The latest outburst came to a head last month after Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled against a petition seeking to bar LGBTQ+ lobbying groups. This sparked a torrent of condemnation including from the attorney general, who vowed to challenge the verdict.

President William Ruto, a born-again Christian elected last August, declared that same-sex marriages could “happen in other countries but not in Kenya”.

He said homosexuality was a Western import that Kenya’s “customs, traditions, Christianity and Islam cannot allow”.

His deputy, Rigathi Gachagua, went even further, calling the court’s decision an example of:

repugnant morality and injustice in our way of life.

In a rare show of unity, opposition leader Raila Odinga agreed with the government. Despite spending months contesting Ruto’s election victory, Odinga joined in accusing the court of overstepping its mandate.


Across Kenya’s western border, lawmakers in Uganda introduced a bill in parliament last week that would punish anyone who identifies as gay or engages in same-sex activity with a 10-year prison term.

Uganda has long been known for its intolerance of homosexuality. In 2014, president Yoweri Museveni drew international condemnation after signing a law that promised life in prison for homosexual relations. It was struck down by Uganda’s constitutional court on a technicality.

In recent months, online conspiracy theories accusing shadowy international forces of “promoting homosexuality” have flooded social media.

Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMU), said that “Community members are living in fear”. SMU is a leading gay rights organisation whose operations were suspended by the authorities last year. It has already been inundated with calls from LGBTQ+ people over the new bill.

Gay people an ‘easy target’

Attacking gay rights while speaking of evangelical Christian values is an easy win for politicians in many African nations, campaigners say.

Oryem Nyeko, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, called it a “very intentional and coordinated effort.” He added that homosexuals are an “easy target”:

They are a vulnerable group, they are a minority, they are misunderstood.

In Burundi, homosexuality has been criminalised since 2009. There, 24 people were charged with “homosexual practices” last week after attending a seminar organised by a nonprofit focussing on HIV/AIDS prevention.

The crackdown has also expanded into schools. The governments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have vowed to stop the alleged spread of LGBTQ+ awareness among students.

Earlier this month, Burundi’s president Evariste Ndayishimiye urged citizens to:

curse those who indulge in homosexuality, because God cannot bear it…

They must be banished, treated as pariahs in our country.


Tanzanian activist Fatma Karume said gay, lesbian and trans people were scapegoats for political leaders struggling to address economic crises.

She told AFP:

It’s unfortunate… they want to use this minority group to distract people.

The timing is not lost on gay rights campaigners.

“We are being taken for a ride,” said NGLHRC’s Gateru, adding that regardless of the motives behind the onslaught, the message was clear:

Being an LGBTQ person is being a second-class citizen.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Ludovic Bertron, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence, resized to 770*403

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