The counter-movement against the Western gay rights revolution is showing no signs of abating in Africa, where legal recognition of LGBT rights in all but South Africa remains a distant dream. Yet for Western governments, interventions into this sensitive international arena can prove disastrously counter-productive. A policy focus on reactive aid conditionality and public condemnation by Western leaders has only served to fuel accusations of colonialism and further marginalise LGBT Africans. Thus far, it appears that the impact of the transnational LGBT rights movement has been overwhelmingly negative in Africa.
LGBT rights remains a difficult foreign policy space to navigate, raising questions of where Western intervention in the affairs of African nations is proportionate and appropriate, and crucially whether it can be successful. So what could effective foreign policy regarding LGBT rights in Africa look like? Possible solutions for Western governments can be found in low-key diplomacy, and an Afro-centric approach that highlights grassroots initiatives and African voices as key to changing hearts and minds on the continent.
Foreign policy that demands aid conditionality on the removal or withdrawal of homophobic legislation is an error that is only likely to fuel anger and increase social marginalisation, as has been seen in several African countries. Even before Uganda’s 2014 anti-homosexuality bill had been signed, reactive cuts to development aid totalled $110m, including the cancellation by the US government of a $4.2m community policing program, diverted salaries for Ugandan public health employees to the NGO sector, and reallocated funds to another unnamed African country. Threats of aid conditionality have allowed African leaders to scapegoat LGBT individuals for their governments’ own failings. When the UK government withdrew aid to Malawi over concerns about government corruption, several government sources blamed previous threats of aid conditionality over prison sentences for two gay men, resulting in a public backlash that forced activists to flee their homes under the threat of violence. The ramifications of aid withdrawal can be wide-reaching and catastrophic. Ironically, LGBT individuals, who are suffer disproportionately from serious social issues like HIV/AIDS, abuse and poverty, are also likely to be some of the worst-hit victims from the withdrawal of social services.
Furthermore, expressions of outrage from Western leaders only served to draw publicity to the situation, fuelling public anger at perceived neo-colonialism, and thus bringing about a wave of increased discrimination, including murder. Mistakenly, the assumption has been made that removing legal discrimination is the first step towards social transformation. Yet it is social change that drives governments to amend legislation in a way that has a genuine impact on those affected, and not the other way around. Proposed anti-homosexuality legislation is extremely difficult to enforce, whereas the backlash from Western attempts to thwart it increases resentment and potentially endangers many lives. It is critical that foreign policy responses reflect this reality.
So if aid conditionality is not the answer, what could a more appropriate policy response to African homophobia look like? There is potential for quieter diplomatic efforts to yield more effective results without stirring up local controversy. In the case of Uganda, a leaked diplomatic cable revealed that President Museveni had already promised the US government that no homosexual would be executed in Uganda. Nevertheless, even these diplomatic efforts must be conducted with sensitivity to avoid incensing African governments to dig in their heels. Potentially even more effective at avoiding charges of undue Western influences would be to increase the prominence given to influential African voices demanding equal rights; the South African Human Rights Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the former President of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, are all voices that could be utilised far more effectively at times of crisis.
Policymakers must take their lead from activists on the ground. The slow pace of change may seem frustrating in a political climate that demands rapid and radical transformation, but current hard interventions have so far only served to entrench and exacerbate the problem further. Grassroots activists have already voiced frustration at the heavy-handed interventions of Western policymakers. After the UK threatened to withdraw Ugandan development funding, AMSHeR, a coalition of African sexual rights NGOs, released a statement condemning aid conditionality on many of the same points I have argued here. Yet the withdrawal of $110m in aid suggest these arguments went ignored.
Relying on the superior knowledge of local activists and NGOs is a far more effective way to continue the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa. These people are aware of the cultural spaces in which struggles for recognition can take place, and conversely when it is advisable to pull back. They are also the potential victims of heavy-handed Western intervention; we must trust them to know where to push boundaries if it is their lives that could be under threat. We must expect progress to be slow, but African grassroots organisations already perform admirable work combatting homophobia and providing vital support to LGBT Africans. Allowing these groups to develop their own strategies, and translate their cultural knowledge into effective advocacy can be far more effective because it undermines the central claim of African political homophobia: that homosexuality is alien to Africa. Policymakers must recognise that to succeed, the fight against homophobia on African soil must be an agenda led by Africans.