Seye Abimbola: David Cameron, homosexuality, and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa

seye_abimbola“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Last week, the Nigerian senate signed a bill to outlaw homosexual marriage, homosexual association, and support for homosexual people. Same-sex couples who marry face up to 14 years each in prison. Witnesses or anyone who helps a marriage face up to 10 years. “Public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly,” carries a penalty of 10 years in prison. And organising, operating, or supporting gay clubs, organisations, and meetings will attract a 10 year sentence. Beyond violating the human rights of gay people, these provisions effectively threaten HIV/AIDS care for men that have sex with men.

Nigeria is only the next in a list of sub-Saharan African countries that have legislated against homosexuality, following Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Ghana, all former British colonies. These countries like Nigeria, carry on the anachronistic vestige of colonial anti-gay laws and sentiments, adopted long before Britain and the western world came to terms with homosexuality. There is overwhelming historical evidence of the presence of homosexuality and  same sex unions in Africa before contact with Europe and the Arab world. Unlike it is often claimed by anti-gay activists in Africa, it is not homosexuality but homophobia that is un-African.

There may be something good about the recent public interest in homosexuality: it has moved homosexuality from an issue that attracts mere “ridicule” to a position where gay rights is a subject you can discuss with a taxi driver in Nigeria. But one wonders if this is the right attention at this time, especially given the ire of  politicians and policymakers in Ghana, Malawi, Uganda,  Zimbabwe and Nigeria, due to a rather brash threat by David Cameron that there will be a cut in British funding to countries that have laws that ban and punish homosexuality. Britain spends an average of £20m a year on HIV/AIDS programmes in Nigeria.

In Nigeria as in many African countries, less than 10% of people living with HIV/AIDS (about 400,000 people) are on anti-retrovirals and 95% of those are paid for by foreign donor funds. Thus David Cameron’s concerns are legitimate. The Nigerian health ministry has no programmes specifically targeting the homosexual community. Heterosexual sex accounts for 80% of HIV transmissions in Nigeria. However, it would be for the greater benefit of gay people in these countries if instead of making a punitive pronouncement David Cameron chose to direct aid to support human rights dialogues to ensure tolerance and the inclusion of gay and other minority issues into broader social justice debates. These things are best done quietly and surreptitiously.

David Cameron’s loud pronouncement may stand in the way of proper engagement with the people, politicians, and policymakers in Africa where the majority are adherents of Christianity and Islam, the two big religions, which share, in a rare instance of common agreement, an ecclesiastically informed aversion to homosexuality with the ironic claim that homosexuality is un-African, as if Islam and Christianity are African! Indeed, if anything is un-African, it is homophobia, the discrimination against people based on sexual behaviour that is considered unusual or peculiar but which does not in any way violate anybody’s rights.

The world has been here before, in fact the world is always here: from the civil rights movement in the USA, to women’s suffrage globally. It is the same with animal rights movements, the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, and more recently the climate change movement. The zeitgeist shifts; one only wonders if David Cameron’s pronouncement helps or hinders gay rights in sub-Saharan Africa. Prejudices are still deep in places like Nigeria, and like David Cameron admits, it will take many years to get change people’s mind, maybe another generation.

But who will suffer the public health fallout of the proposed laws and David Cameron’s pronouncement in Nigeria and other African countries, especially as the Global Fund stagnates in the face of the global financial crisis? Who will suffer if the UK government makes true its threat to withhold foreign aid to countries that violate the rights of gay people to fulfil their sexual destiny? It is sad enough that African politicians should have more important priorities than opposing gay rights. What the passing of this bill shows is insensitivity and disconnect of the political class from the real concerns of the people, irrespective of their sexuality. Nigerian politicians and their familes living with HIV can afford treatment abroad. They are able to call the bluff of David Cameron, pass a law that will restrict access to care for gay people who they are not willing or able to help, in the name of preserving an imagined African culture and tradition, in the name of the Christian and Muslim god, and most of all in the name of ignorance.

Seye Abimbola was a BMJ Clegg Scholar in 2007 and is presently a research fellow at the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja, Nigeria.