U.S. Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good

Lagos, Nigeria — Suspicious neighbors and landlords pry into their private lives. Blackmailers hunt for victims on the social media sites they use to meet others of the same sex. Police officers routinely stop them to search for incriminating images and chats on their cellphones.

Since an anti-gay law went into effect last year, many gay Nigerians say they have been subjected to new levels of harassment, even violence.

They blame the law, the authorities and broad social intolerance for their troubles. But they also blame an unwavering supporter whose commitment to their cause has been unquestioned and conspicuous across Africa: the United States government.

“The U.S. support is making matters worse,” said Mike, 24, a university student studying biology in Minna, a town in central Nigeria who asked that his full name not be used for his safety. “There’s more resistance now. It’s triggered people’s defense mechanism.”

In Nairobi, Kenya, activists demonstrated against gay rights this month, and plan another when President Obama visits.Obama Kenya Trip Sets Off Gay Rights Debate in AfricaJULY 21, 2015
Four years ago, the American government embarked on an ambitious campaign to expand civil rights for gay people overseas by marshaling its diplomats, directing its foreign aid and deploying President Obama to speak before hostile audiences.

People gathered in October to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Initiative for Equal Rights, a gay rights group in Lagos. Credit Glenna Gordon for The New York Times
Since 2012, the American government has put more than $700 million into supporting gay rights groups and causes globally. More than half of that money has focused on sub-Saharan Africa — just one indication of this continent’s importance to the new policy.

America’s money and public diplomacy have opened conversations and opportunities in societies where the subject was taboo just a few years ago. But they have also made gay men and lesbians more visible — and more vulnerable to harassment and violence, people on both sides of the gay rights issue contend. The American campaign has stirred misgivings among many African activists, who say they must rely on the West’s support despite often disagreeing with its strategies.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, the final passage of the 2014 law against homosexuality — which makes same-sex relationships punishable by 14 years in prison and makes it a crime to organize or participate in any type of gay meeting — is widely regarded by both supporters and opponents of gay rights as a reaction to American pressure on Nigeria and other African nations to embrace gay rights.

“The Nigerian law was blowback,” said Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and the senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which supports gay rights on the continent. “You now have situations of gay men being molested on the streets or taunted. That was all avoidable.”

“I’ve said to U.S. diplomats privately as well — the risk is causing more harm than good,” Mr. Odinkalu added. “You don’t want an infusion of good will to actually do harm to the community that you think you’re protecting.”

Anti-gay sentiments are widespread across Africa. Same-sex relations remain illegal in most nations, the legacy of colonial laws that had been largely forgotten until the West’s push to repeal them in recent years.

Fierce opposition has come from African governments and private organizations, which accuse the United States of cultural imperialism. Pressing gay rights on an unwilling continent, they say, is the latest attempt by Western nations to impose their values on Africa.

“In the same way that we don’t try to impose our culture on anyone, we also expect that people should respect our culture in return,” said Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian active in lobbying against gay rights.

American officials defend their efforts, saying they are mindful of the many risks gay Africans face.

“If it’s important to advance the human rights and development of these folks by being discreet, that’s a position we’re perfectly comfortable taking,” said Todd Larson, the senior lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender coordinator for the United States Agency for International Development. “Our goal is to support them in their efforts and not necessarily take front and center, particularly when highlighting U.S. support might endanger our partners.”

Shortly after Nigeria’s law went into effect, Animashaun Azeez, 24, a university student here, arranged to meet somebody he had chatted with on Manjam, a social network for gay people. The person showed up, along with three plainclothes officers. Mr. Azeez said he spent three days in jail and was released only after his father, fearing publicity, paid off the police with about $900.

“Many L.G.B.T. people are getting into trouble day by day,” said Mr. Azeez, who after the episode became a volunteer for the Initiative for Equal Rights, a gay rights group in Lagos.

Violence against gay Nigerians has increased significantly, according to the country’s National Human Rights Commission. Most are attacked in the open by groups of men, some of whom call themselves “cleansers,” rights groups say.

But victims often do not report attacks for fear of being outed. Even men infected with H.I.V. are often reluctant to seek treatment at hospitals, fearing that the authorities will be called, said Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of the Center for the Right to Health, an H.I.V. patient and rights group based in Lagos.

“Before, these people were leading their lives quietly, and nobody was paying any attention to them,” Ms. Iwuagwu said. “Before, a lot of people didn’t even have a clue there were something called gay people. But now they know and now they are outraged. Now they hear that America is bringing all these foreign lifestyles. They are emboldened by the law. The genie has already left the bottle.”

The United States’ role comes as longstanding foes in its culture wars continue to move their fight to Africa. Many private supporters of equal rights for gay people in the United States, after landmark successes at home, are increasing their funding of gay causes abroad, especially in Africa.

American conservative and Christian groups have also turned to Africa, where the vast majority of people still share their opposition to same-sex relations and marriage.

“There is an intentional effort to coordinate with Africa specifically because we don’t want them to make the mistakes we’ve made here in America,” said Larry Jacobs, managing director of the World Congress of Families, an umbrella organization of social conservative and religious groups. It is based in Rockford, Ill., and is active with Ms. Okafor in Nigeria.

Gay Africans are becoming increasingly caught in the American culture battles being waged in Africa, said the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who is a researcher at the Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates.

“When two elephants fight, the grass will suffer,” said Mr. Kaoma, who has documented the ties between American evangelicals and the anti-gay movement in Africa. “This is what’s happening in Africa. African L.G.B.T. persons are just collateral damage to U.S. politics on both ends.”

In late 2011, the Obama administration made the promotion of gay rights an integral part of American foreign policy. Since then, it has pushed for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas, working with the United Nations and private groups.

Since 2012, U.S.A.I.D. has spent more than $700 million on the effort globally, starting new programs related to gay rights and incorporating the promotion of such rights into existing ones, according to American officials. Agency officials declined to release details of the programs in Africa, citing security concerns.

But tying developmental assistance to gay rights has fueled anger across the continent. After Uganda’s president signed a tough anti-gay law last year, for example, the Obama administration announced that some aid money for the Ugandan police and health agencies would be cut off or redirected.

“This is an abuse of power, and that’s why many are turning around and saying, ‘Keep your money,’ ” said the Rev. George Ehusani, former secretary general of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, adding that Nigerian Catholic charities had stopped applying for American government grants that promote gay rights.

For many African activists, American backing is a double-edged sword.

At the office of the Initiative for Equal Rights here, a small community center has served as an oasis for gay Nigerians in this megalopolis. But they were unsettled by the red, white and blue stickers once posted throughout the hall.

The stickers — with the message, “U.S.A.I.D. From the American people” — underscored the Nigerian gay rights movement’s financial dependence on the West. For some, they also inadvertently gave credence to the widely held belief in Africa that homosexuality is a foreign lifestyle foisted on the continent.

“It really affected our advocacy efforts,” said Michael Akanji, director of programming for the group. The group was granted a waiver by the aid agency to remove the stickers late last year.

One of the founders of Nigeria’s gay rights movement, Dorothy Aken’Ova, began organizing in the mid-1990s after living in France, where she saw broad acceptance of gay people. In 2000, she opened the International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, which provides services for gay men and lesbians in Minna.

“There was a veil of silence in the country over L.G.B.T. issues,” Ms. Aken’Ova said, “and people could even boldly hit their chest and say there are no gays in Nigeria and no lesbians in Nigeria. I knew that was wrong.”

In the early 2000s, an American foundation gave a handful of Nigerian activists support, she said, “so that we can make the movement political.”

But over time, the growing recognition of and pressure for gay rights in the West led to a reaction in Nigeria. Calling homosexuality “unnatural” and “un-African,” Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, backed an anti-gay bill in 2005 that seemed to be going nowhere.

But as the United States and other Western governments fiercely condemned the bill — and a similar one in Uganda — Father Ehusani, Ms. Okafor and others lobbied aggressively in support of it. Lawmakers, reacting to what they felt was egregious interference by the West, rallied behind it. The legislation passed unanimously in 2013, the first bill to do so since the end of military rule in 1999.

In what was considered a major setback to gay rights in Africa, Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law in January 2014.

In retrospect, Father Ehusani said that Nigeria’s law was too punitive and an “overkill.” Without the American pressure, he said, “the law would not have come in the form in which it did.”

Many African activists say that efforts should be focused on quietly educating the public about homosexuality and changing social attitudes.

The Initiative for Equal Rights, the group Mr. Azeez volunteers for, is planning to raise private funds inside Nigeria for the first time to reduce its foreign dependence.

“Then it actually feels like we’re owning the process,” said Pamela Adie, who sits on its fund-raising board.

Ms. Adie, 31, lived in the United States for several years and returned to Nigeria last year to work in ExxonMobil’s communications department. She said that despite the 2014 law, the early signs of a gay culture were emerging, at least in parts of Lagos.

Now, she said, “masculine-identifying” women like herself were freer in the way they dress. “That never happened 10 years ago,” she said. “Now people are more open. They might not come out and say they are L.G.B.T., but you can tell.”

Ms. Adie and a couple of hundred others recently attended the 10th anniversary party of the Initiative for Equal Rights, an event that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

Abayomi Shoyinka, 27, a fashion blogger who went to the party, said later that pushing “too fast” and “too hard” for gay rights could only make things “bad or worse.”

“As time goes on, we will get there,” Mr. Shoyinka said. “The patient dog eats the fattest bone.”

by Norimitsu Onishi
Source – The New York Times