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The world is watching as three sub-Saharan African countries consider changes to their anti-homosexuality legislation. Anti-homosexuality laws in Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi are often promoted as a Christian “moral” imperative. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has today warned that “if homosexuality is to remain a preoccupation within the Church of England, the new Archbishop of Canterbury must broaden his horizons and recognise the influence he carries on the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi

The proposed new anti-homosexuality law in Nigeria would increase prison sentences to ten years, not only for being in a same-sex relationship, but also for anyone supporting LGBT rights or organising gay rights events or being a member of any pro-gay organisation. This bill has passed unanimously through the House and awaits only a review and the signature of President Jonathan Goodluck.

The proposed new Anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda, often referred to in international media as the “kill the gays” bill, was again introduced on the back of religious arguments, and the parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga this week said it would be passed by the end of the year as a “Christmas gift” to the people. The bill would establish a death sentence in cases of “aggravated” homosexuality (which includes repeat offenses of gay sexual activity), and criminalises anyone who knows about a homosexual activity and does not report it to the police, effectively incentivising a witch-hunt.

The first woman president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, was celebrated by LGBT rights groups when she promised on taking office to abolish the country’s anti-homosexuality legislation. However, since coming to power she has stepped back from this position. In the last week there has been confusion and disappointment as justice minister Ralph Kasambara first announced a suspension of anti-homosexuality laws pending parliamentary debate, then denied any such suspension. Whatever else is going on, it seems clear that there are some high-level political figures such as president Banda who do want to abolish the persecutory laws, but reform hangs in the balance.

Homosexuality and the Churches

Homosexuality in Africa is often disparaged by conservatives as something imported and “alien” to tradition, while anti-homosexuality legislation is defended as a religious cause. In Nigeria the House majority leader Mulikat Adeola-Akande said of same-sex marriage, “Religion abhors it and our culture has no place for it.” The House Minority leader Femi Gbajabiamila agreed it was “immoral”.

Uganda, Nigeria, and Malawi are all former British colonies with churches influenced significantly by the Anglican Communion. Although many African Christians worship in Catholic or Pentecostal denominations or independent evangelical churches, the Anglican Churches of Nigeria and Uganda—where new legislation would severely harden anti-homosexuality laws—remain highly influential. The Church of Nigeria is the largest in the Anglican Communion outside the Church of England. The Church of Uganda claims affiliation from around a third of the population, the single largest denomination in the country. In Malawi, where the possibility of in fact abolishing anti-gay laws is being hotly debated, the Anglican church is in a minority, but remains influential.

Precedent and Influence

Today, Bob Churchill of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) said:

“The Anglican Communion has a new head, Archbishop Justin Welby. He is known to be against proposals to introduce same-sex marriage in the UK. He has said only that he will “listen very attentively to the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully”. This does not go far enough and now is not the time for lengthy soul-searching. The situation is urgent.

“A conservative church resistance to same-sex marriage in the UK is bought at the cost of failing to condemn new, dangerous, religiously-motivated anti-homosexuality legislation in both Uganda and Nigeria. Given his potential influence, Welby’s noncommittal prayerfulness is dangerously weak. To whatever extent the Church may be lobbying its overseas dioceses against these extremes behind closed doors, the process is not working.

“If homosexuality is to remain a preoccupation within the Church of England, the new Archbishop of Canterbury must broaden his horizons and recognise the influence he carries on the worldwide Anglican Communion. He must break radically with the current strategy. As it is, the Church appears more concerned about a formal extension of equality to same-sex couples in the UK than about its bishops supporting outright persecution and even capital punishment for homosexuality in Africa. Where is the urgency, the sense of priority; where is the compassion?”

There is precedent for this concern. Earlier this year, Ugandan-born, British Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, compared same-sex relationships to “friendships” and the UK government’s proposed same-sex marriage reform to the social engineering of “dictators”. His comments appeared on the front pages of the government-linked New Vision newspaper in Uganda, appearing to support the anti-homosexuality agenda. The Uganda Humanist Association warned at the time, “He [Sentamu] has a right to free speech, but he is also morally obliged to consider the wider impact of his words. A statement condemning gay marriage from a Ugandan in high office in the Anglican Communion now appears on the front page of the leading Ugandan daily newspaper… statements such as this from a Church which remains highly popular in Uganda will make the situation worse.”

Notes

You can sign the Avaaz petition to Ugandan President Museveni and parliament to withdraw the Anti-homosexuality Bill.

You can sign the All Out petition to Nigerian President Goodluck to veto new anti-homosexuality legislation.

There are IHEU Member Organisations in Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria. The recently established Ghana Humanist Association will hold a three day conference 23-25 November in Accra promoting “alternative ways of viewing the world and that asking questions and following the evidence is essential if we are to develop as a nation” (Reuters).

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