In Africa, Homosexuality Emerging as Hot-Button Issue

Article excerpt

In Kenya, Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently told supporters in the Nairobi slum of Kibera that he would order police to arrest gays. In Uganda and Malawi, debate is rising over the legality of homosexuality.

Long seen as a fringe societal taboo far from the realm of African politics, homosexuality is emerging as a hot-button issue throughout much of the continent. Kenya, East Africa's economic hub, joined the trend in late November when Prime Minister Raila Odinga told supporters in the Nairobi slum of Kibera that he would order police to arrest gays.

"We will not tolerate such behavior in the country. The Constitution is very clear on this issue, and men or women found engaging in homosexuality will not be spared," Mr. Odinga said in Swahili, in comments that were taped by several news organizations. "Any man found engaging in sexual activities with another man should be arrested. Even women found engaging in sexual activities will be arrested."

The statement - which brought cheers in the Kibera slum - has created a sharp divide between Christian conservatives, who argue that homosexuality is against religious laws and "the law of nature," and human rights activists, who argue that stigmatizing any minority is illegal. It serves as the latest example of an outlook driven by the growing political assertiveness of powerful Christian churches that bolster existing social stigmas against gays.

"Normally, we judge a country's development by its tolerance of minorities," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. "We've seen this same issue come up in Uganda, in Zimbabwe, in Malawi, where gays are assaulted, arrested, jailed. Anything like that, the prime minister should condemn, but instead, he's encouraging it."

Ms. Kabeberi encouraged the prime minister to retract his statement, if only because Kenya's newly enacted Constitution does not, in fact, make homosexuality illegal. (Kenyan law merely states that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.)

If the statement was Odinga's attempt to become popular with Kenya's powerful churches, she adds, "the wrath of the civil society is going to make him wish he wasn't popular on this issue. He should be urging Kenyans to be tolerant, instead of himself being intolerant."

While recordings of Odinga's speech have been made public online, Odinga's spokesman Dennis Onyango issued a statement saying that Odinga was misquoted.

Odinga said he intended to clarify that the Constitution was not, as alleged by opponents, going to legalize same-sex marriages. …