BBC World Debate: “Is Homosexuality UnAfrican?”

Download this episode
View in iTunes
You can watch the Frontline event here. 

By Gianluca Mezzofiore

After the killing of gay rights activist David Kato in Uganda in January, debate about homophobia in Africa has been reignited. Kato was the face of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) an advocacy group actively campaigning against the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is about to pass in the country. He was murdered after Ugandan weekly Rolling Stone pictured his face and another man on the front page under the headline “Hang them!”, though the exact motives behind the murder are still unclear.

A panel discussion at the Frontline Club about gay rights in Africa featured an exclusive preview screening of an excerpt from a BBC World Debate which will be broadcast by BBC World News  on 12 and 13 of March. After the screening, a panel discussed gay rights in Africa and the men and women who seek asylum in the UK to escape persecution as a result of their sexuality. The panel, chaired by Ben Cashdan, producer of the BBC debate, included John Bosco Nyombi, a gay Ugandan man who fled to Britain in 2001 and after an eight-year campaign finally won asylum in the UK, and Jonathan Cooper OBE, a barrister specialising in human rights.

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Photography by Sophia Spring

The BBC debate features prominent African leaders like David Bahati, the Ugandan MP behind an anti-homosexuality bill and Festus Mogae, former Botswana President now calling for tolerance of sexual minorities, as well as gay activists like Paula Akugizibwe and Eusebius McKaiser.

The BBC debate is entitled “Is Homosexuality unAfrican?” because the argument among many Africans is that homosexuality is “un-African” – foreign to the continent, against its teachings and traditions and even against what the Bible teaches. Some believe it affects African principles like continuity of life or procreation.

“We used that very deliberate title to force people to this kind of conversation,” said Ben Cashdan, producer of the debate. “The question is: can you really say that homosexuality is not African? Because that’s exactly what Bahati argues.”

In one scene, Festus Mogae is challenged by the BBC presenter, Zeinab Badawi, for his reticence during his presidency to approve a pro-gay law. The answer is shocking: “I didn’t change the law because I didn’t want to lose election on behalf of the gays”.

John Bosco Nyombi believes that Mogae’s attitude is shamefully common in African governments: “Most Ugandan people don’t like homosexuals,” he said. “Politicians don’t want to lose their votes, and even if they are not interested in the issue, they campaign against our rights to gain popularity.”

Nyombi also criticised the primitive view which sees homosexuals as a threat to proliferation of children in the continent. “Catholic priests don’t get married, but their existence is not questioned,” he said. “Gay people don’t recruit children, it’s a childish discussion. I am gay, but certainly not because my parents told me not to be straight.”

Investigating the legality of laws that criminalise homosexual acts is Jonathan Cooper OBE’s main task. He’s the chief executive of Human Dignity Trust, a new body which is highly critical of the Ugandan new bill. “It includes a violation of a number of rights guaranteed by international laws ratified by Uganda,” he said. “Criminalising sexual conduct undermines dignity and privacy of human beings. Once approved, the act could be challenged through Ugandan court for unconstitutionality. But who will be brave enough to do that?”

It has been calculated that about 38 countries in Africa still criminalise homosexuality. However, in other parts of the world, China has changed its legislation recently, and India is going through the same process, not through legislation, but through controversies before lawor litigations. The anti-gay bill in Uganda introduces a hideous note, because it forces doctors, professionals, teachers, lawyers to report someone who is homosexual within 24 hours. Otherwise, they can be arrested.

“The South African constitution guarantees those rights,” Obe said. “I strongly believe that this is not supported by majority of South Africans. A true democracy is one that has legal election, but also fundamental human rights principles to protect fragile and vulnerable people.”

However, Nyombi is sure the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill is going to pass. “During the pre-election period, nobody talked about it,” he said. “Now they’re bringing it back, because the president and most people in the government are anti-gay.”

Raising the issue in front of an international public is critical to Nyombi. “I would like to back the gay rights issue in Western countries,” he said. “But the question is: is Uganda going to know that? If people try to campaign for Ugandan human rights, is it going to be shown there? Before the internet era, nobody talked about it. Gay people are still hiding themselves, but now they have a voice.”

If you missed the event, watch the video below. You can see the full version of the BBC World Debate: Is Homosexuality UnAfrican on BBC World News on 12 March at 09:10 and 22:10 GMT and 13 March at 02:10 and 15:10.