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Africa: The link between gay rights, chieftaincy and patronage

By Gedion Onyango

The gay stance between Uganda versus international community is simply a struggle in defining standard international socio-cultural norms in a globalised system. This involves the processes of determining who defines these norms and how these norms should be enforced. It also brings into question contents of these norms and how these norms are either arrived at or the socialisation processes of these norms and degree of their legitimacy in a targeted population. Without strong international government and law-enforcing mechanisms, defining international socio-economic norms is an uphill task. The fluid system cannot effectively enforce such norms, and therefore legislation of these norms is placed in the hands of national governments. This makes enforcement of such norms unpredictable as long as states remain central actors in legislating or regulating, consolidating, contextualising and enforcing emergent socio-cultural norms.

As a result, norms that we think are generally presented within the radar of human rights are defined by an informal collective perceptions and legitimacy then legislated by states. However, these perceptions and legitimacies are the centre of contention when it comes to gayism — I use the “ism” since the term is slowly becoming a human-rights discourse — in sub-Saharan Africa. It may be thus interesting to explore questions such as: how and who in the international system defines which socio-cultural norms are right or wrong among, between and within states? Which processes are involved? What is the legitimacy level of such a socio-cultural norm in a particular state? And how do we trace and measure their legitimacy in a socially and economically varied international society?

Unfortunately, power is structurally a very dominant variable in relations between states. And it is just logical that the socio-cultural menu of the most powerful states will prevail in the operationalisation, adoption or legislation of a non-power related concept like socio-cultural norms. Consequently, weak states, for reasons that range from economic and political stability to the fear of being rendered a pariah state, have in the past overwhelmingly endorsed and incorporated these norms into their national laws without a critical review. As a result, most sub-Saharan African countries have witnessed policy implementation failures for the lack of contextualised international conventions.

The problem has been that these conventions are created in western cities and African leaders are merely invited to endorse. Thus, over the years the western bloc has seen sub-Saharan Africa as its responsibility in regard to its socio-economic and political development. It has defined what African states should do or not do and how they should do it within a carrot and stick formula. And in this spirit of an older brother watching, the west has somewhat successfully seen legislation against harmful norms such as female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa. Also in 50 years, under the west’s “leadership” most sub-Sahara African countries have achieved what took the west a century or more to attain in terms of development.

Due to the recommendable nature of the west-African relationship, African politicians have for a long time been largely defining their political actions in tandem with western preferences. As foreign policies of states like China have been largely conditioned by internal factors, most of sub-Saharan Africa states’ foreign policies are designed within the spectrum of western interest even at the detriment of addressing the reigning socio-economic and political conditions at home.

Now, with such a long-lasting harmonious and productive relationship, what has gone wrong with gay rights issues? Why can’t African leaders just treat gayism like any other aspect of human rights? What has made African leaders blatantly rebellious against legislating gay rights into national laws? Are they finally stable enough to stand on their own or is it the influence of China that tends to provide alternativeness in terms trade and aid? We have seen even in worst scenarios leaders like President Yoweri Museveni legalising anti-gay laws amid uproar and threats from the west. What I have found interesting is how the anti-gay stance has been cohesively handled by African leaders despite threats from the west. Has the big brother finally lost his authority in determining which norms are right and wrong for African societies? Or are African leaders more concerned with preserving their “cultures” than developing their societies? You may agree with me that we have never seen African presidents this principled and unmoved in their foreign policies, especially, when they are not acting in the interest of the west.

No matter what answers we get, gayism has presented a very interesting aspect of international relations. Sexuality, especially in terms of sexual orientation and preferences, has never been a topic when it comes to relations between state actors, and may be in the near future we are eagerly waiting to see how powerful western states are going to handle a convention on sexuality and gay rights. It will be interesting to see how this convention may be enforced in Africa. At least for the first time in this century, power may fail in the defining international socio-cultural norms since an issue of legitimacy is coming out strongly. And, African leaders have for the first time considered their societal perceptions and organisation in their relation with the west.

Possibly, the west clouded by history of imposing legislations on African states, miscalculated their approach to ensuring gay rights by not critically mapping the level of sensitivity of this topic in Africa. Or they have simply not tried to think of the contextual organisation, the effectiveness and the role of informal societal structures in sub-Saharan Africa. The gay issue cannot be handled like democracy or refugee rights since it is a culturally-laden debate. And culture and the state in Africa are very intertwined, and the former tend to be more functional than the latter. In fact, studies have insinuated that informal cultural setup influences how state institutions operate in sub-Saharan Africa. And with such a culturally governed society, social ideologies cannot just change overnight.

In other words, as a society becomes economically advanced, societal norms become fluid or loosen up. Social structures tend to either collapse or evolve and people become more open to explore new ideas. Social ideologies on relations also become more complex and confusing in the search for appropriate identities within a competitive system. This has taken place in the west and adulterous women, for instance, are no longer stoned to death in Jerusalem. The society has become more receptive to varied and opposing social ideologies and identities being created over time. Individual’s interest overshadows that of the community, and control or suppressing mechanisms posed by societal setup shifts towards individual freedom.

On the other hand, African societies have this cocktail of some level of liberal position at first stance but with inherently active informal structures and weak state institutions in place. Political leaders, for example, still believe in chieftaincy and patronage is rife. Individual rights come second after societal interests are fulfilled. For instance, what will a political leader tell the elders of his tribe — who actually determine his political career — that he has allowed gay relationships, which is either considered to be against their culture or is a suppressed norm in the society — a taboo?

Legislation of gay rights therefore comes with a huge political price, which African leaders are not ready to pay. And this scenario is not about to change soon. Until it happens, we may have a long way to legalising gay marriages in sub-Saharan Africa as the grounds are still hostile for such legislations to succeed. That is, for any legislation of this kind to function, it needs legitimacy from receptive population to be harmoniously passed and through a consensus be implemented. This sort of legitimacy is what we hugely tend to lack in, for example, Uganda and other countries hostile to gay rights. I think the way forward is to encourage research on the topic to help us unearth gayism in sub-Saharan Africa. Such studies may enlighten us on the popular connotations of gayism vis-à-vis the social settings or structures in sub-Saharan Africa. But for now, let us absorb the idea, figure it out, emotionlessly debate and see what do to over it; putting in mind that each and every one of us has a right to live freely and fearlessly despite of our sexual orientation.

Gedion Onyango is a PhD research fellow with the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.

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