What's behind the controversy over gay rights in Africa?


Members of the Ugandan gay community mourn at the funeral of murdered activist David Kato near Mataba, on January 28, 2011. Although the police claim it was most likely a petty crime, many members of the gay and the human rights community hold the Ugandan government responsible for not battling the growing violence against homosexuals in the Ugandan society.


Marc Hofer

PRINCETON, New Jersey — The debate over the reasons for the surge of anti-homosexuality legislation in sub-Saharan Africa has often focused on the clandestine activities of Western evangelical Christian groups on the continent. The nebulous, but certain, nature of Western evangelical involvement and investment in Africa has made it difficult to quantify the extent of their politicking on behalf of anti-homosexual movements and legislation.

And even as one evangelical organization (Scott Lively and Abiding Truth Ministries) has been taken to court by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, Western state leaders have tied LGBT rights to human rights and bound the observance of these rights to the aid they supply to African countries.

But does the West always hold the trump card when it comes to Africa?

Not quite.

Take, for example, three countries that have been in the news in recent years for their anti-homosexual legislation or policies: Malawi, Uganda, and Nigeria. These three countries present three different contexts, with three different outcomes.

Earlier this month, in her first state of the nation address, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, took a radically different tone from her immediate predecessor, who had publicly supported the 14-year prison sentence given to two Malawian men who were convicted of engaging in homosexual acts. Eager to distance her administration in a variety of ways from the previous president, Banda has sought to attract foreign aid and investors to rescue the country’s spiraling economy.

Banda has put herself in the favor of US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron with her public support of the repeal of “indecency and unnatural laws act.” In this she follows South Africa’s notably liberal stance on sexuality rights, as well as Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, who took a more moderate stance on the issue. Unlike South Africa, however, Malawi is facing a severe need for massive foreign aid, and the UK is moving to summon £30 million ($47 million) in the coming weeks to ward off an economic collapse in the central African country.

As a moderate tone filters up from the south of the continent and a firm rhetoric of “human rights” is broadcast from Western state leaders, what will the effect be on states like Uganda and Nigeria?

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Uganda has undoubtedly received the greatest attention on the matter, due exclusively to the "Kill the Gays Bill," which was introduced in parliament in 2009 by an otherwise insignificant legislator, David Bahati. Under severe pressure from the West, the most extreme sections of the bill were tabled, with promises to remove the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” an amendment that now appears not to have taken place.

Western pressure to quash the bill came at a period when President Yoweri Museveni was politically vulnerable. Despite the fact that his wife, Janet, supported the original bill, Museveni pragmatically moved to moderate his tone, unable to afford the potential loss of foreign aid in an election year when his grip on power was appearing to slip.

The semi-autocratic leader has moved back onto more familiar and stable fiscal ground as US financial and military aid to Uganda has increased for the publicized purpose of hunting down the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa — a move supported by the evangelical-backed Invisible Children group responsible for the Kony 2012 campaign that was an internet sensation earlier this year. Nevertheless, the original bill has recently resurfaced through the advocacy of Uganda’s Joint Christian Council, an ecumenical body with prominent ecclesiastical members from Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches.

And then there is Nigeria, whose bravado on issues of human sexuality is bolstered by oil. The conflicted and oil-rich country is far less dependent upon Western aid than Malawi or Uganda, with oil accounting for 80 percent of its governmental revenue and 95 percent of its foreign exchange income.

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Despite the country’s frequently violent religious clashes, there is something that many Nigerians can agree on: they don’t want homosexuality legalized. And they are certainly willing to flout Cameron’s threats in order to avoid toeing a line drawn by their former imperial overlords — a tone that mirrors Nigerian Anglican bishops’ rebukes of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s attempts at rapprochement within the Anglican Communion.

The influence of American evangelical groups in sub-Saharan Africa is certain, but the nature of its labyrinthine influence and effects are difficult to trace. Western evangelical interest in Africa is selective — even sporadic. Western evangelicals have found in various African Christians people who share their theological and social convictions, and supporting them and their projects has become foundational to many extensive Western Christian missionary and non-profit organizations.

While irresponsible evangelical groups fail to take the potentially violent implications of their involvement seriously, their efforts are nevertheless subject to forces well beyond their control: the vagaries of national politicking, international energy markets, and the exigencies of infrastructural development.

In discerning a way forward, we would do well not to view African politics or evangelical influence as monolithic, unilateral, and determinate.

Jason Bruner is a doctoral candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary. His dissertation is a study of the religious history of colonial Uganda. He has also published essays, articles, and book chapters on the history of evangelicalism and the religious history of Africa and East Asia. He blogs about global religious issues

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