Being gay in Africa: the state of play

Wednesday February 8 2012


Many African countries, with the notable exception of South Africa, have laws that ban or repress homosexuality. The subject took on added sensitivity after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently told leaders at an African Union summit they must respect gay rights.

Among countries which have adopted repressive laws against homosexuals:

UGANDA provides for lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty in some cases.

NIGERIA already outlaws homosexuality but is in the process of adopting an anti-gay law that spells out harsh sentences for gays in Africa's most populous country.

Unanimously approved by the Senate, the bill calls for up to 14 years in jail for gays entering into "marriage" or cohabitation. It bans public displays of affection between homosexual couples and makes gay organisations illegal, which has raised some concern that funding channelled through non-governmental organisations for AIDS treatment could be put in jeopardy. The bill now goes to the lower house and requires a presidential signature to become effective.

SENEGAL slapped eight-year jail terms on nine men in 2009 for "unnatural acts and conspiracy". In January, Amnesty International said hostility was growing against Senegalese gays with "harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture and unfair trials".

In GAMBIA, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, for men and women. In 2008, President Yahya Jammeh vowed to push through even stricter laws, saying gays should leave the country and vowing to "cut off the head" of any homosexual caught in Gambia. He later withdrew the statement, but said he would hunt down homosexuals and expel them from their homes.

Homosexuality is illegal in other countries, notably CAMEROON, KENYA, TANZANIA and LIBERIA. In LIBERIA, the issue has been in the headlines this year after a group of activists began lobbying for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This created a furore in the country whose President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The information ministry released a statement last month saying: "The Liberian government will not allow the legalisation of gay and lesbian activities in Liberia. The president has vowed not to allow such a bill, and even if the bill goes before the president she will veto it."

Homosexual acts are also illegal in the countries of north Africa, though with differences among each state.

In TUNISIA, sodomy between consenting adults is punishable with up to three years in prison. However the online "Gayday magazine" was launched last year amid the Arab Spring revolution.

In MOROCCO, homosexuality is punishable by six months to three years in prison, but is tolerated provided practitioners do not flaunt their different sexual orientation.

And in ALGERIA, anyone charged with a homosexual act is liable to up to two years in prison, but people are rarely prosecuted for such offences.

In several countries homosexuality is a taboo subject, but with certain zones of tolerance:

In ZIMBABWE President Robert Mugabe is known for saying that gays and lesbians are "worse than pigs and dogs". However, the group Gays and Lesbians is authorised. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has said that he wants gay rights enshrined in a new constitution.

MALAWI's penal code classifies homosexuality under "indecent practices and unnatural acts". Malawi faced global outrage in 2010 after a gay couple were handed a 14-year prison sentence for sodomy, after holding a wedding ceremony. The men were later pardoned.

In the DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO there is no law against homosexuality and gay venues are tolerated, but gays are discriminated against in daily life.

In BENIN, there is no specific law banning homosexuality but the penal code sanctions perpetrators of acts "against nature with an individual of the same sex" with fines and up to three years in jail. Nevertheless homosexuals are starting to assume their identity and some are speaking out in the media.

In BOTSWANA, members of a banned organisation Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (Legabibo), have filed a suit to challenge a sodomy law criminalising same-sex relations.

In GHANA, President John Atta Mills said on returning home from the AU summit where the UN chief urged respect for gay rights: "We are not witch-hunting gays in Ghana, so one can't talk about discrimination against them..." But he stressed, "our society frowns on it and its practice remains unacceptable."

Other countries, such as GABON and IVORY COAST do not criminalise homosexuality, but SOUTH AFRICA leads the way on gay rights.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has had one of the world's most liberal legal frameworks for gays.

The constitution bans all discrimination based on sexual orientation. The parliament legalised gay marriage in 2006, making the country the only one in Africa to recognise unions between people of the same sex.