21 January 2014

Africa: Anti-Gay Laws Will Heighten Corruption in Africa

The spread and strengthening of anti-gay laws in Africa (now covering 39 out of 54 countries on the continent) is to threat everyone's human rights irrespective of their sexual orientation.

Because of the public stigma attached to being gay, the laws can be used to extract false confessions and bribes. This happened to me in Kenya in the early 1980s.

My organization, Environment Liaison Centre International--then chaired by the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai--hosted the founder of a small start-up NGO in Sweden called Ekoteket. He had hosted me on my visit to Sweden. On his last day I offered to buy his dinner and show him around in Nairobi prior to his late flight.

On the way to his hotel around 8:30pm to pick up his luggage to go to the airport we were stopped by two policemen. We were asked for our IDs which we proudly produced. I explained who we were and the purpose of our guest's visit.

After inspecting our documents, one of the officers pulled me aside and said if we didn't give them some money they would arrest us and we would be charged for breaking the law on homosexuality.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I could not prove that I was not a male prostitute. Where there is stigma a charge is the punishment, no further proof is needed to inflict injury.

I was stunned by the claim and the humiliation of having to say this to our guest. I tried again to explain, including the fact our guest had used up all his local currency and all he had left was money for his taxi.

I only had money for my taxi home that evening. I ended giving up my taxi fare and a little more from my guest. We had to show the policemen all the money we had.

My worst memory of the encounter was being forced by the policemen to shake hands saying we gave them the money in good faith. When I recounted to Wangari Maathai this experience she related it to her own ordeals and the abuse of laws that discriminate against women.

For her this was yet another example of the dangers of discriminatory practices and why people needed to oppose them even if they didn't think they affected them directly.

The spread of anti-gay laws is a threat to every African irrespective of his or her sexual orientation. They broaden the foundation for corruption and encourage the trampling of liberties.

Africa's better days lie with a more tolerant future, not a past world that seeks to have a stranglehold on society by globalizing hate and entrenching it in national legislation.

My conscience and personal experience advise against silence. This is because in the hands of determined corrupt officials I cannot prove that I am not gay. This in itself is a test no one should be subjected to in a society that cherishes human liberty.

Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.

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