Nowhere to Turn: Blackmail and Extortion of LGBT People in Sub-Saharan Africa

Published: June 2, 2011

On June 2, 2010, the anonymous blogger at GayUganda posted a threatening letter sent by a group calling itself the National Anti-Homosexual Taskforce. The letter was written to someone who GayUganda called "Mr. Semakula Zilaba," and described just how much the Taskforce knew about him – his age, where he went to school, where he worked, details about his wife and child, and his whereabouts on certain days and times. The letter’s authors then demanded a list of all the homosexuals that Semakula knew in Kampala and Jinja. They also demanded a letter denouncing homosexuality that they could use to show that they were eradicating homosexuality in Uganda. If the demands were not met, the letter stated, the Taskforce would expose Semakula to his family, friends, employer, and neighbours, would get him fired and blacklisted from future employment, and would publicize his sexuality in every neighbourhood in which he tried to live in the future. It also implied that Semakula’s friends faced physical harm if they themselves failed to comply with the demands of the Taskforce.

It is difficult to overstate the terror and helplessness that these types of threats evoke for their victims. In places where it is illegal, stigmatizing, or dangerous to identify as LGBTI or to engage in same-sex activity, keeping one’s sexuality a secret may be, quite literally, a matter of life or death. In 36 countries across the continent of Africa, same-sex activity is criminalized and one has only to look at the reports of human rights organizations to see evidence of the violence and discrimination unleashed on LGBTI people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The profound repercussions that would stem from the disclosure of sexual secrets and the vulnerability this creates allows people, like the authors of the letter on GayUganda, to keep LGBTI and same-sex practicing people in a debilitating state of fear and worry and to manipulate their lives for gain – even as their victims go to great lengths to protect their secrets. The gravity of the consequences of disclosure – beyond creating vulnerability – also deters victims from seeking support, reporting these crimes and seeking justice.

The letter posted on GayUganda is not unusual. Of all of the violations that LGBTI people in sub-Saharan Africa deal with, blackmail and extortion are perhaps the most prevalent – and the least visible. A recent survey of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana found that blackmail was one of the most prevalent human rights abuses they faced, with 18% of those in Malawi, 21.3% of those in Namibia, and 26.5% of those in Botswana reporting incidents of blackmail. Among those surveyed across all three countries, the 21.2% of people who had been blackmailed because of their sexuality were a larger proportion than those who, on the same basis, were afraid to walk in their community (19%), were afraid to seek health services (18.5%), had been beaten up by a government or police official (12.2%), were denied housing (6.9%), or were denied health care (5.1%). A study in Abuja, Nigeria, similarly suggested that 23.1% of respondents had been victims of blackmail.[6] Even in South Africa, where same-sex activity has been decriminalized and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation outlawed, a worrying 10.5% of MSM respondents reported being blackmailed in peri-urban townships outside of Cape Town.

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