Op-Ed: African Government's Exploitation of Homophobia Harms All of US

Published: May 15, 2014

 The explosion of homophobia in Africa has been attributed to a number of causes – traditional culture, the influence of Western evangelicals or other drivers – and noted as well for the risk this poses especially when it comes to fighting HIV-AIDS.

What hasn’t received as much attention are the political reasons for this unhealthy trend, and the threat it poses for human rights and progress in Africa in general.

In 2010, the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone shamelessly published ‘100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak’.   The front page article featured a picture of David Kato, Uganda’s leading gay rights activist, with the subtext: ‘Hang Them’.  Within three months, he was found dead in his home, his head crudely bludgeoned by a hammer.

Being gay in much of Africa had been dangerous long before the governments of Nigeria and Uganda passed legislation criminalizing homosexuality.  Of the 61 countries in Africa, 39 outlaw homosexuality and 4 of them have a death penalty: Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria, and southern Somalia.

At first glance, these anti-homosexuality bills are disheartening erosions in human rights reflecting the negative attitudes of homosexuality by Nigerians and Ugandans.  Indeed a sizeable majority of Nigerians and Ugandans favored their passage.

However, a deeper look into the situation reveals the underlying Machiavellian political reasons behind why Presidents Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda embarked on their malicious crackdown on gay rights.


Both presidents are residing over significant failures of governance in health, employment, and regional stability and would like nothing more than a distraction to rally their supporters and critics to their sides.

In Nigeria, where the discovery of oil in 1956 greatly pre-dates its transition to civilian-led democracy in 2003, the oil industry has an established hegemony and exerts large influence in the Nigerian government.  For instance, the Nigerian Central Bank Governor was recently sacked for whistleblowing that $20 billion in oil revenue was missing.  Politicians and oil entrepreneurs benefit from the industry at the expense of these funds being effectively distributed to advance education, infrastructure, and human capital.

Challenges such as rising food costs, a weak healthcare infrastructure, and climate change make life for the average Nigerian harder, and the stagnant economic growth entails falling further behind.  In 1980, 17.1 million people (19% of the population) lived in absolute poverty.  That figure today is 112 million people (61%) despite sizeable growth in economic output.  This massive growth in poverty and wealth inequality fuels resentment and contributes to the ongoing insurgency of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in the north and Niger-Delta militants in the south.

President Jonathan has done little to change the unequal economic structure of Nigeria, and has faced dwindling approval ratings in the absence of progress.  In a nation deeply divided along Christian and Muslim lines, the anti-homosexuality bill was a rare opportunity to revive his flagging political fortunes.  His gamble appeared to pay off as his approval rating increased overnight from an all-time low of 40% to a record 61% following the passage of the bill.

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