Same-sex activity is outlawed in over 30 states in Africa with sentences ranging from minor fines, years’ imprisonment, and even death. EXX Africa assesses some of the highest risk locations across the continent for LGBQT+ communities, business travellers, and corporate expatriates.
The fight for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, and Transgender (LGBQT+) communities in Africa has ebbed and flowed over the past decade. Where there have been significant gains – such as with Angola and Botswana legalising same-sex marriage last year – there have also been indications of regression in some states. In the last quarter alone, Zambia expelled the US ambassador to the country over public statements questioning the country’s anti-gay laws, a prominent LGBQT+ activist was killed in Uganda in what many suspect to be a hate crime, and Nigeria put 47 men on trial in the very first test of its anti-gay laws.
In our latest analysis briefing, EXX Africa profiles the types of threats facing LGBQT+ communities in Africa before ranking some of the highest risk locations for local communities, expats and travellers in terms of both state laws and community attitudes.
Threats facing the LGBQT+ community in Africa
As indicated by the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, LGBTQ+ communities are at risk of a number of abuses around the world. These include, but are not limited to: murder, rape, mob attacks, abuse by police and prison officials, criminal sanctions, arrest, imprisonment, blackmail, harassment, humiliation, discrimination, death threats, being fired from their job, being evicted from home, or being refused medical treatment. While abuses can be tracked globally, sub Saharan Africa remains one of the “most hostile regions”, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations.
A quick review of some high-level numbers and survey results depicts this state of affairs.
As of June 2019, for example, 32 out of 54 African countries outlawed same-sex activity. Same-sex activity carries a prison sentence of one or more years in countries like South Sudan, Liberia, Togo, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Comoros, and Zambia, while such activity is punishable by death in Sudan, Mauritania, Somalia, and in some states in Nigeria. The following map demonstrates these offences and associated protections across the continent, as of December 2019.
Map 1: Sexual orientation laws: 2019
(Source: International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association – ILGA)
This lack of tolerance towards LGBQT+ communities is reflected not just at the level of the state or through regulations but at the community level as well. According to findings from a 2016 Afrobarometer study, while Africans display a high tolerance for people from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds, the same does not exist in terms of attitudes towards these communities. Only 21 percent of Africans surveyed indicated that they would either like or be indifferent to having gay people as neighbours. Moreover, only in Cape Verde, South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia did the majority of the population display high tolerance for gay people.
High risk locations in Africa
Taking into account this dual lack of tolerance in many African states, we have profiled some of the highest risk locations for LGBQT+ locals, expats, staff and travellers across the continent. Country profiles have been derived from Human Rights Watch alongside other sources.
Type of law: Outlaws same sex relations and criminalises gender expression.
- Legal provisions: Carnal intercourse against the order of nature; entering into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union; making public show of same-sex amorous relationship; registering, operating, or participating in gay clubs, societies, and organisations.
- Sentence: Up to 14 years in prison under criminal law and death penalty under localised state Sharia laws for same sex relations.
- Political attitudes: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has an infamous reputation for being against same-sex relations. He has reiterated that sodomy is against the law in Nigeria and “abhorrent” to Nigerian culture. He was re-elected in February 2019 and will serve until 2023, suggesting any change is unlikely in the next few years.
- Community attitudes: The introduction of the Same Sex Prohibition Act (2013) in Nigeria is said to have worsened the situation for the LGBQT+ community beyond being guilty of criminal offences. According to global watch dogs, the law was used by police officers and members of the public to legitimise abuses against LGBQT+ people – resulting in widespread extortion, mob violence, arbitrary arrest, torture, detention and physical and sexual violence. However, while the risk of community intolerance remains today, recent survey data across Nigeria shows that public perceptions towards LGBTQ+ communities has improved since 2014 and there has been a corresponding decrease in attacks and hate crimes – suggesting a possible juncture between community and state attitudes.
- Other: There have been no trials or convictions as per the law (although there were detentions) until recently. In December 2019, 47 men went on trial for public displays of affection with members of the same sex after having been arrested at a hotel in Lagos in 2018. This offence carries a 10-year jail sentence in the country. Until this trial, the criminal justice system had had very little opportunity to create a body of jurisprudence around LGBQT+ issues. It is still unclear how this trial will affect state and public attitudes going forward.
- Type of law: Outlaws same sex relations.
- Legal provisions: Unnatural offences, gross indecency.
- Sentence: Thirty years to life in prison. Indecent behaviour with regard to homosexuality earns up to five years in prison.
- Political attitudes: The administration of President John Magufuli has toughened the country’s stance towards LGBQT+ communities. Indeed, his regime has been associated with police raids on health and human rights workshops aimed at promoting gender minorities, forcing gay men in streets to invasive medical exams, and shutting down gay-friendly health clinics. Moreover, in October 2018, Paul Makonda, the governor of Dar es-Salaam, announced the formation of a surveillance team dedicated to hunting down homosexuals and urged the public to report homosexuals to authorities. While the government later rolled back these comments, many LGBQT+ individuals went into hiding as a result. The majority of those rounded up by the police are subjected to sexual assault or rape.
- Community attitudes: The public response to Makonda’s statements suggest a high level of anti-gay sentiment in Tanzania. According to his office, within a matter of days, he had received close to 6,000 messages with more than 100 names of LGBQT+ individuals.
- Type of law: Outlaws same sex relations
- Legal provisions: Sodomy, gross indecency, forms of gender expression criminalised.
- Sentence: Lashes and five years in prison for first and second convictions; death penalty or life in prison if convicted for the third time.
- Political attitudes: In 2019, Sudan underwent a major political transition in which long-serving leader President Omar Al Bashir was ousted in a military coup. While a transitional government is currently in place, there is little indication of an impending change to the rights of LGBQT+ communities.
- Community attitudes: According to a Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) report from 2014, the overwhelming majority of the population considers non-conforming sexuality and gender expression socially unacceptable. Few people dare talk about sexual orientation or gender identity publicly, for fear of personal attacks and threats to their safety. There are reports of vigilantes targeting suspected LGBQT+ people for violent abuse and public demonstrations against homosexuality. There is also no anti-discrimination or hate crime legislation that protects LGBQT+ people from harassment and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in Sudan.
- Type of law: Outlaws same-sex relations. Criminalises forms of gender expression.
- Legal provisions: Carnal knowledge against the order of nature; indecent practices between males; indecent practices between females. In terms of gender expression, “every male person who wears the hair of his head in such a fashion as, when he is standing upright, the main line of the bottom of the mass of hair (other than hair growing on his face or on the nape of his neck) lies below an imaginary line drawn horizontally around his head at the level of the mouth” is guilty of an offence.
- Sentence: Sexual acts between men: up to 14 years in prison; sexual acts between women: 5 years in prison. Pro-LGBQT+ organisations are banned. Gender expression carries up to six months in prison or a minor fine.
- Political attitudes: The government’s response to enhancing LGBQT+ rights has been erratic over the past decade. In 2012, the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs issued a moratorium on arrests and prosecutions for consensual homosexual acts, providing hope for a turn of affairs. However, in 2016, a high court order suspended the moratorium pending judicial review by the Constitutional Court. Moreover, during last year’s elections, the various political parties openly expressed anti-gay sentiment or refused to comment on the matter suggesting that a change is not forthcoming.
- Community attitudes: According to Human Rights Watch, police often physically assault, arbitrarily arrest and detain LGBQT+ individuals, sometimes without due process or a legal basis. The withdrawal of the moratorium has also reportedly encouraged the public to carry out attacks and hate crimes with impunity.
- Type of law: Outlaws same-sex relations.
- Legal provisions: Carnal knowledge against the order of nature, gross indecency.
- Sentence: Seven years to life in prison.
- Political attitudes: President Edgar Lungu’s stance has been particularly harsh in Zambia, resulting in a recent diplomatic feud with the US. In November, two gay men were sentenced to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the order of nature.” When US Ambassador Daniel Foote said he was “horrified” by their imprisonment, the Zambian government announced that his status was “no longer tenable” – forcing him to leave the country. President Edgar Lungu defended the anti-gay laws, saying homosexuality was “unbiblical.”
- Community attitudes: Parts of Zambia remain deeply conservative – so much so that public displays of affection or overtly sexual behaviour between any two people, whether heterosexual or LGBQT+, are disapproved of.
Type of law: Outlaws same-sex relations.
- Legal provisions: Carnal knowledge against the order of nature; gross indecency.
- Sentence: Homosexual intercourse results in life in prison. Gross indecency results in seven years in prison. Pro-LGBQT+ organisations are banned.
- Political attitudes: The political outlook for LGBQT+ communities in Uganda is dire. In October 2019, after the death of a renowned activist, reports emerged that parliament intended to introduce a bill that would criminalise the so-called “promotion and recruitment” by gay people and would include the death penalty for “grave” consensual same-sex acts: a return to THE 2014 so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill. In that same month, Security Minister Elly Tumwine claimed in an October 3 television interview that LGBQT+ people were linked to an alleged terrorist group.
- Community attitudes: Hate crimes against LGBQT+ individuals and activists are common in Uganda. Most recently, on 5 October, activist Brian Wasswa was attacked and killed in his home. His death marked the fourth LGBQT+ murder in three months at the time.
- Type of law: Outlaws same-sex relations
- Legal provisions: Carnal knowledge against the order of nature; acts of gross indecency between males.
- Sentence: Homosexual intercourse between males earns 14 years in prison. Homosexual acts between males earns five years in prison.
- Political attitudes: In mid-2019, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws criminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults, a step backward in the progress Kenya has made toward equality in recent years.
- Community attitudes: It is worth noting that the laws are rarely enforced. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been just two prosecutions against four people in the last decade. Surveys conducted in 2016 also revealed that 53 percent of Kenyans did not agree that being LGBQT+ should be a crime and 46 percent of respondents said they had no concerns about their neighbour being gay or lesbian. As such, a vibrant social movement seems to have largely countered the state’s response to these issues although cases of police extortion, harassment and assault are still reported.
- Type of law: Outlaws same sex relations.
- Legal provisions: Homosexual and other indecent acts.
- Sentence: Up to 15 years in prison.
- Political attitudes: While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been praised for ushering in various human rights reforms, he has not addressed the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Given local attitudes towards these communities and the involvement of religious bodies in the state, this outlook is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
- Community attitudes: Homosexuality is deeply condemned in Ethiopia – traditionally, religiously, and legally. Indicative of this, in June last year, Ethiopian church groups called on the government to block a planned visit to the country by a US-based company that organises tours for gay people. The prospect of the tour company coming to Ethiopia further prompted public calls for attacks against gay tourists and their home countries. Religious leaders since indicated that they would be forming a new association to promote so-called conversation therapy to change gay people’s sexual orientation. A US State Department Human Rights Report from 2018 found that sexual minorities in Ethiopia face “severe societal stigma”.
In addition to the aforementioned countries, the following countries are also deemed high risk location for LGBQT communities – primarily as a result of the criminalisation of same sex relations and/or gender expression and imprisonment for such conduct: Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, eSwatini, Ghana, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, Togo, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.
Given the high risks associated with being LGBQT+ in the majority of African countries, such individuals are urged to conduct extensive research into local customs and laws before embarking on any travels and deployments.
Such research is even required when travelling to LGBQT+ friendly locations. For example, while South Africa is praised for being one of the most LGBQT+ friendly locations across not just the continent but globally (given its progressive state laws), studies have revealed that LGBQT+ people are three times more likely to be attacked or subjected to hate crimes in its rural province of the Eastern Cape followed by KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo. Moreover, the South African Institute of Race Relations has further revealed that four out of 10 LGBQT+ South Africans know of someone who has been murdered for being – or suspected of being – part of the LGBQT+ community.
In general, LGBQT+ individuals are advised to refrain from showing physical shows of affection in public, to consider clothing options as gender expression is criminalised in some locations, to avoid using associated dating apps in foreign countries (as the police have been known to carry out entrapment campaigns), to be wary of ‘newfound friends’, and to take extra precaution in rural areas.