Arrests in Uganda, Nigeria shine spotlight on grim state of LGBTQ rights across much of Africa | CBC News

Arrests in Uganda, Nigeria shine spotlight on grim state of LGBTQ rights across much of Africa | CBC News

Human rights groups are concerned about recent crackdowns targeting LGBTQ people in parts of Africa under laws that restrict their very existence.

Police in Nigeria arrested more than 60 people in a raid on an apparent same-sex wedding early Monday, while Ugandan authorities are for the first time charging a man with “aggravated homosexuality,” an offence that can be punishable by death under the country’s anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Nigeria and Uganda — among 32 of the 54 African nations that criminalize same-sex relations — have some of the strictest anti-LGBTQ laws in the world. Observers say in addition to criminal penalties, such laws have a chilling effect on the day-to-day lives of members of the LGBTQ community.

“In Africa, homosexuality is seen as something that is an abomination,” said Christopher Nkambwe, an LGBTQ activist who fled Uganda and came to Canada as a refugee in 2019. He is now executive director of African Centre for Refugees in Ontario – Canada, which assists LGBTQ and intersex people escaping persecution.

Although penalties aren’t always imposed in every country, the situation across Africa is getting much more dangerous for LGBTQ people, according to activists like Nkambwe, and the enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act earlier this year has emboldened lawmakers in other countries to pursue similarly harsh legislation.

WATCH | Canada condemns Uganda’s harsh anti-LGBTQ law:

Uganda approves harsh new anti-LGBTQ law

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ laws. Canada was quick to condemn the new law, which includes the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality.’

‘Stifling effect’ of anti-LGBTQ legislation

Police in Nigeria’s southern Delta state raided a ceremony at a hotel early Monday morning, initially arresting 200 people but ultimately detaining 67 of them.

Bright Edafe, a police spokesperson in southern Nigeria’s Delta state, posted photos on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, showing how he “paraded” the “gay suspects” at a local police station.

Edafe told reporters that homosexuality “will never be tolerated” in the country and that police officers in Nigeria “cannot fold their hands” and watch gay people openly express their sexual orientation.

Nigeria enacted its Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act in 2013making it illegal for same-sex individuals to marry, but it also restricts the public display of same-sex relationships.

Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said this “does seem to be one of the most significant arrests under the law,” which punishes anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or civil union with 14 years in prison, and anyone who facilitates or takes part in any such union with a 10-year sentence.

But the scope of the Nigerian law goes well beyond its very specific wording, he said, explaining that it has a “stifling effect” on LGBTQ organizations and individual activities.

A man holds a protest sign over his shoulder that reads
A young man in Lagos, Nigeria, holds a sign questioning LGBTQ killings during a march marking the National Day of Mourning, on May 28, 2018, commemorating all of the lives lost to violent killings and mass displacement in the country. (Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images)

It threatens 10 years in prison for anyone who operates or takes part in any sort of gay clubs or organizations, as well as anyone who makes a public display of same-sex relationships.

“The law has also had the effect of making LGBT people particularly vulnerable to extortion, to blackmail and the hesitation to report crimes to the police in case they themselves are implicated,” the South African-born Reid said.

Lives under threat

Although the Nigerian government’s legislation does not impose the death penalty for homosexuality, there have been people sentenced to death in Sharia courts in predominantly Muslim states in the country’s north.

Three men arrested in the state of Bauchi in June 2022 were ordered to be stoned to death for engaging in homosexuality. Sharia court sentences must be approved by a state governor, and it’s unclear if the sentence was carried out.

In Uganda, however, the death penalty is officially on the books, and now the “worst fears” it could be used are real with the case of a 20-year-old man charged with aggravated homosexuality, said Kimahli Powell, CEO of the Toronto-based LGBTQ refugee organization Rainbow Railroad.

“What makes it so dangerous and frightening is the subjectivity and the ambiguity around [the law],” Powell said, noting that at least 90 per cent of the more than 1,400 requests for assistance Rainbow Railroad has fielded so far this year have been made since Uganda adopted its anti-homosexuality law three months ago.

LISTEN | Ugandan LGBTQ activist explains risks of anti-homosexuality law:

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The internationally condemned law prescribes life in prison for consensual same-sex intercourse and up to 20 years for what’s referred to as the “promotion of homosexuality,” which can restrict an array of activities from the distribution of LGBTQ materials to even renting a home or building to LGBTQ people.

The death penalty can apply in cases deemed “aggravated,” which include repeat offences, gay sex that transmits terminal illness or same-sex intercourse with a minor, an elderly person or a person with disabilities.

The other male in the aggravated homosexuality case is a 41-year-old who is reported to have some sort of “physical infirmities” and was thus unable to consent, according to Ugandan news outlet the Monitoralthough human rights group Amnesty International says police have not provided evidence of this.

“Since it is a capital offence triable by the High Court, the charge was read out and explained to him in the Magistrate’s Court on [the] 18th and he was remanded,” Jacqueline Okui, a spokesperson for the office of the director of public prosecutions, told Reuters.

Okui did not provide additional details about the case. She said she was not aware of anyone else having been previously charged with aggravated homosexuality.

“Charging this individual with an offence that carries the death penalty based solely on his perceived sexual orientation is a flagrant violation of international law,” Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement on Wednesday.

WATCH | How Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ law came to be:

‘Punishable by death’: Uganda’s new violent anti-gay law | About That

Uganda passed one of the strictest anti-homosexuality laws on the planet. Andrew Chang looks into how this law came to be and how the international community is reacting.

Pushing back on progress

Uganda and Nigeria are not alone in ramping up restrictions on LGBTQ people in Africa.

Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania have all seen varying efforts to advance legislation that would impose harsher restrictions on LGBTQ communities, while authorities in Ethiopia carried out a crackdown on LGBTQ people in the country’s capital in early August.

Human Rights Watch’s Reid said this “new wave of laws,” which focus on public expression of LGBTQ identity, is partially connected to the increased awareness and visibility of LGBTQ people and groups in Africa — something that has been bolstered by progress on rights in some parts of the continent.

In 2006, South Africa became the first, and so far only, country on the continent to legalize same-sex marriage, but in recent years other countries — Botswana, Angola and Mozambique — have decriminalized homosexuality. Namibiawhere homosexuality is still illegal, passed legislation earlier this year to recognize same-sex marriages performed in foreign countries.

But the draconian laws implemented elsewhere, Reid said, not only oppress LGBTQ people but also serve other purposes.

“In Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Act has been used very consistently and quite effectively to distract from political failings, from economic woes and from the repression of Uganda’s government,” he said.

WATCH | Supporters, critics of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act react in Ghana:

Ghana reacts to Uganda’s new anti-LGBTQ laws

Edem Senanu, the chairman of Advocates for Christ Ghana, says while he doesn’t know the full details of Uganda’s new anti-LGBTQ laws, he believes they’re a step in the right direction and is encouraged to see similar laws arrive in his own country. However, Alex Kofi Donkor, founder of LGBT+ Rights Ghana, says what happened in Uganda is ‘barbaric,’ and that people should not be criminalized for their sexuality.

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