Millions of Africans are enamoured with all things American. In high school, to show their loyalty and maintain a connection to the great American men and women of God, some of my classmates would send money to American preachers all the way from Uganda. When these teenagers prayed, they did not say God. They said Gawd – like Americans. The worldlier of us wore crop tops and fancied we looked like Ashanti. At school parties we danced to American music, favouring as partners the boys who wore headscarves that reminded us of Ja Rule.
Africa’s apparent obliviousness to the US marriage equality decision is an exception to this tradition of devoted adoration. Not that anyone expected Africa to leap for joy. South Africa is the only African country where gay marriage is legal. Most of the countries either criminalise homosexuals or, at best, pretend they do not exist.
And now African leaders are pretending the US decision on gay marriage did not happen. The historic judgment caused most of Europe and America to break into colourful celebration. But in Africa even the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Mozambique, a few days after the US Supreme Court decision, did not inspire much conversation on homosexuality. Apart from Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who reportedly reacted to the US judgment with a mock marriage proposal to American president Barack Obama, African leaders have remained silent.
Yet Africans – African presidents in particular – are cordial people; they value their relationship with the west. They know they cannot do without the billions in aid and trade. The money is necessary to keep loyalists happy within shaky regimes. Niceties to western partners, like congratulatory messages on independence, after an election or a successful security expedition, are part and parcel of the deal.
The truth is that America did not exactly open up the gates to conversation. After the initial stern warnings and threats about the consequences of violating gay rights came the silent realisation that this is an issue it must tread carefully on. Perhaps heeding Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s advice that Africans do not appreciate public displays of affection even for heterosexuals, the US embassy in Kampala did not make any extravagant announcements to celebrate the judgment. Diplomats and government officials met, even dined, and everything but the elephant in the room – gay marriage rights – was up for discussion.
This did not, however, stop the ordinary Ugandan from poking, probing and accusing. One, Munanura Tmk, asked: “Who tells you that US is the father and definition of democracy and human rights? Enjoy the right to homosexuality since you have unanimously allowed it in the US but also allow Africa to practise its freedom.”
To the Ugandans who went into fasting and attended overnight prayers following the US judgment, the fear that the great US is officially rolling out its pro-homosexuality agenda is gripping. They are America and their tentacles have no bounds. The calls to God to cause fire to strike America and the fervent quotations from the Book of Revelation are really the whimpering of the defeated.
To them, the US decision is deja vu – a searing reminder of last year’s Ugandan constitutional court annulment of the anti-homosexuality act. Conservatives in the east African nation had hoped the law that punished some homosexual acts with life imprisonment would deal with gay people once and for all. Now, with homosexuals, albeit in the most modest ways, looking more and more victorious, these conservatives are looking for a way to salvage their pride by suggesting the re-tabling of the anti-gay law. The prediction is that, just as Uganda’s anti-gay law inspired similar legislation all over Africa, the US gay marriage decision will cause African presidents to do something equally outstanding. If only to reassure their citizens that they are still in control and there will not be a spillover of these liberal “deviances” from the west into Africa.
In Uganda the situation is particularly precarious, with the presidential elections coming up next year. Ugandans, 96% of whom think homosexuality is unacceptable, will not vote for candidates whose stand on homosexuality they do not know.
Museveni, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades, is expected to seek another term. He and the security forces that are unabashedly partisan towards NRM, the ruling party, will do anything to crack down on dissent. They have arrested and shot at opposition supporters, declared a war on social media critics, and a law to control NGO activity is under way. If push comes to shove, re-enacting an anti-gay law to swing the scales in Museveni’s favour is not an unimaginable option.
The only snag is that, while the west seems content to punish other kinds of human rights violations with a warning or a report, they take real action when it comes to gay rights. Museveni has warned MPs to go slow on the gay issue for the sake of maintaining trade relations with the west.
Yet the diplomatic games on gay rights can only go on for so long. With more countries legalising gay marriage, there are practical issues to address. ow will gay couples from Europe or America be treated? The simple answer would be that they will not come to Uganda for whatever reason. This kind of exclusion is unrealistic and bad for Uganda, and Africa.
As the wave of gay marriages ripples through Europe and America, it is inevitable that some of the splashes will hit Africa, and African leaders know this. They also know there is too much to lose by hanging on to homophobia. They may bicker about it with the west for a while, and gay marriage may still have a century or two until it is embraced in Africa. But the cool splashes from the great America are the beginning of the end of the animated embers of officially sanctioned homophobia on the continent. Africa’s gay people have to believe this. It is the most comforting option in the unpredictable sea of the politics of homosexuality in Africa.
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