LGBT issues have made national headlines in several countries in recent months, highlighting the slow pace of change in public attitudes towards homosexuality. For example, police in February raided and closed Ghana’s first LGBT community centre, which had opened less than a month earlier. Following weeks of pressure from conservative Christian groups and lawmakers, President Nana Akufo-Addo made clear that same-sex marriage would “never” be legalised while he is in office. A few weeks later, 14 people were arrested for allegedly attending a “lesbian wedding”. In May, a fresh attempt by Ugandan lawmakers to further criminalise same-sex relationships triggered renewed debate about LGBT rights. The country had already caused international outrage several years ago when the government sought to introduce the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts (the law was ultimately struck down by the judiciary). Meanwhile in Senegal, a new protest group has emerged calling for harsher jail sentences for same-sex activity. A protest rally organised by the group in late May led to a rise in cases of abuse and assaults targeting Senegal’s gay community in the last month. 

Legal protections still wanting

Same-sex relations remain illegal in 32 of 54 African countries, and are still punishable by death in three countries: Mauritania, Somalia, and Nigeria (only in 12 northern states where Shari’a law is enforced), though the death penalty has not been applied to date. There has been some progress in southern Africa: Mozambique, Botswana and Angola overturned colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations in 2015, 2019 and 2021. But overall, legislation has evolved more slowly than in other regions: Africa now accounts for half of all countries where homosexuality is illegal, up from 40% ten years ago. South Africa remains an exception in the region for allowing same-sex marriage.

No societal shift

Anti-gay laws do not just reflect legislative inertia, but broader public sentiment. Tolerance for people of different sexual identity or orientation remains extremely low: according to a survey of 34 countries by polling institute Afrobarometer, only 20% of people declare they would “not mind” having homosexuals as neighbours. The number has not budged in five years and stands in sharp contrast with the high tolerance (>80%) shown towards foreign immigrants, or people from a different religion. In many large countries, such as Ghana, Kenya or Tanzania, tolerance has declined.

Strikingly, anti-LGBT feelings cut across all age groups: young adults are barely more tolerant than their elders. The same goes for city-dwellers and people with a high school degree. This suggests that the usually progressive forces of urbanisation and education are not bringing more positive attitudes towards homosexuality.

Religion and politics

Religious beliefs partly account for this persistent intolerance. According to various surveys, youths in most Sub-Saharan African countries (except for South Africa) are just as likely as their elders to identify with a religion and attend worship. Religious conservatism has thrived in both Islam and Christianity, fuelled by foreign funds and a rejection of traditional religious orders. In places like Ghana or Senegal, conservative religious groups or popular clerics are powerful lobbies that even progressive presidents cannot defy.

Whipping up anti-LGBT sentiment can also serve as useful political currency. “Exposing” opponents or rivals as gays through friendly tabloids has long been a favoured smear tactic for politicians, with recurrent examples in Uganda or Cameroon. Zambia’s populist President Edgar Lungu may see homophobia as a convenient campaign trick ahead of elections in July. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent controversies in Ghana or Senegal bring some helpful distraction from economic hardship.

But more recently, several leaders have also used homophobia as part of a broader nationalist discourse against “Western imports”. The former president of Tanzania, John Magufuli (2015-21) once accused foreigners of bringing homosexuality to Tanzania, and made overt, institutional hostility towards LGBT a central plank of his nationalist platform. Tanzania is the country where tolerance towards the LGBT community decreased the most between 2015 and 2018, according to Afrobarometer. Burundi’s authoritarian regime also conflated homophobia with its critique of Western interference.

Biden presidency, global trends to increase scrutiny

The US’ disengagement from promoting human rights during the administration of former president Donald Trump (2017-21) is also likely to have played a role in slowing advocacy efforts. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has vowed to revive US efforts to support LGBT rights abroad, alluding to the possible use of financial sanctions against countries that criminalise homosexuality in a February foreign policy memo. The news prompted rebuttals from several African policymakers and is unlikely to prompt changes in legislation. Sanctions will be hard to deploy against some of the US’ closest foreign allies on the continent.

On the other hand, renewed attention on LGBT rights will likely bring scrutiny on companies and organisations operating in countries with high levels of intolerance and present them with some dilemmas. Uganda’s earlier death penalty bill had triggered calls for a boycott on investments and tourism. More recently, technology firm Twitter faced criticism from some pro-LGBT activists after announcing that it had chosen Ghana as the location to open its first Africa office, amid a surge in homophobic sentiment in the country. International companies operating in low-tolerance countries will come under growing pressure to offer a supportive environment for their LGBT staff. Whereas long-term jail sentences or arrests of expatriates remain extremely rare, short-term detentions and physical abuse present a genuine risk for national staff.

Foreign embassies and aid organisations have had to navigate growing sensitivities, and at times public backlash, around programmes supporting LGBT rights, sex and gender education that are central to their mission statement. With big businesses increasingly called to act as changemakers, multinational brands may face pressure from activist groups in their home country, or internal stakeholders, to champion pro-LGBT initiatives beyond the confines of the workplace. Where the same multinationals already take a pro-LGBT stance in more tolerant countries, they are more likely to be called out as inconsistent. Yet doing so could put them at odds with powerful influencers and part of their customer base. Companies that do pursue opportunities in countries with limited LGBT rights should ensure they understand these challenges and proceed with a locally sensitive strategy.

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