Tanzanian President Magufuli's threat to clamp down on homosexuals is creating a climate of hatred and fear. It is not the first time the government has targeted certain groups, thereby provoking heated debate.
In Tanzania President John Magufuli's political style is changing, increasingly showing symptoms of a strongman mentality. In the past he was seen more as a progressive ruler. But recent threats to clamp down on gays in the country are creating a climate of hate and fear. Gays and lesbians are in a state of acute anxiety since the government has threatened to release a list of gay people allegedly selling sex online. This is not the first time the government has made accusations in public towards individuals that provoked heated debate.
A recently released list of alleged "drug pushers," which included the names of politicians and artists, has raised questions about the role of the government in such a crackdown. Paul Makonda, the governor of the Dar es Salaam region, the country's main commercial center, had made public the names of individuals he accused of being drug pushers and ordered them to report to the police within 24 hours.
In July last year Makonda had already announced a crackdown against gays, followed by arrests in clubs. Now Deputy Health Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla has spoken of a more drastic move. He wants to publish a list of gay people. This coincides with the suspension by the health ministry of AIDS-related services at around 40 privately-run health centers after they were accused of providing services to homosexuals.
Clampdown on civic space
The government's crackdown has come as a surprise because Tanzania is regarded as a tolerant country. Its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has not experienced high levels of violence and discrimination although that is common in neighboring Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. In these countries homosexuals have suffered abuse and violent attacks. But in Tanzania politicians have until now generally ignored the topic.
"It is hard to explain and does not seem to be in line with Tanzania's general sense of tolerance and equality", said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. "Although he [President John Magufuli] is widely acclaimed for his positive moves on corruption and development, there has been increasing concern about civic space issues, expression and assembly issues. It is a government that seems to be pulling in different directions and this is one manifestation of the clampdown on civic space."
Tanzania going backwards?
Deputy Health Minister Kigwangalla said on Twitter that the government was investigating "the homosexuality syndicate" and would arrest and prosecute those involved in the gay sex business. "I will publish a list of gay people selling their bodies online. Those who think this campaign is a joke are wrong. The government has long arms and it will arrest all those involved quietly," he wrote. "Once arrested, they will help us find others."
These threats have already had consequences: "The ban of the sale of lubricants last year and the shut down of HIV/Aids treatment and support centers show public health repercussions", Amnesty's Wanyeki said. "It is not good for the general atmosphere because people will not be treated with the equality and anti-discrimination to which everybody has a right," she added, saying "it will create a climate of fear and contribute to this perception that Tanzania is going backwards."
According to Wanyeki, the Tanzanian human rights community is protesting these rights violations and women's organizations have expressed support, saying this is unacceptable. "It can only have the purpose of stigmatization," Wanyeki said.
Explosion of hatred
It is not only the increasing stigmatisation of homosexuals and LGBTs that is creating fear and tensions in the country, it is "an explosion of hatred that we have not seen before," said Boris Dittrich, LGBT Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch in Berlin. "In Tanzania the law punishes consensual sexual conduct between adult males with 30 years to life imprisonment. So legally Tanzania has one of the harshest sentences for same sex intimacy in the world," he told DW.
In such a climate, negative comments and tweets about homosexuals on social media are becoming more frequent. "If someone tweets that they should be prosecuted or eradicated, that flies," Dittrich said. "The authorities do not defend LGBT people in Tanzania against discrimination, hatred or violence."
The climate on the whole against homosexuals is severe, said Dittrich. "Most people from the LGBT community lay low because if they are visible they attract more hostility." HRW has not received any reports that a witch hunt against homosexuals is taking place. "That does not mean it does not exist."
Population largely ignorant
What do Tanzanians as a whole think about the issue? The majority of the population is ignorant, Dittrich says. Religious influence often plays a role in increasing the stigma. Evangelicals, the Pentecostal church and other groups have an anti-homosexual agenda, he adds. It is also a popular topic and becomes a political issue when elections are coming up, he says. President John Magafuli was elected in October last year and his move against homosexuals is a matter of great concern for many international organisations.
"At the moment we still do not know if the list of gay people will be published or if the government supports it as new policy or if it is an individual flair from one of the deputies", Dittrich said. "But it would hugely endanger people."