Run or Hide: The Crackdown on Homosexuals in Tanzania

Name one African nation that is a bastion of tolerance when it comes to alternative lifestyles.

I’ll wait…

But even by Sub-Saharan African standards, life in Tanzania has gotten especially precarious for those unfortunate enough to be outed as gay or lesbian. There have been mixed messages regarding the nation’s official stance on the issue, but times are not good for the queer folk of Tanzania.

The regional governor of Tanzanian coastal city Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, made it clear as day that homosexuals aren’t welcome in his city, and would be personally assuring their apprehension…and god knows what else.

“I have received reports that there are so many homosexuals in our city, and these homosexuals are advertising and selling their services on the internet,” Makonda said in a video last week, according to CNN. “Therefore, I am announcing this to every citizen of Dar es Salaam. If you know any gays … report them to me.” (Vox)

Makonda said homosexual behaviour "tramples on the moral values of Tanzanians and our two Christian and Muslim religions"… "Give me their names," he demanded. "My ad hoc team will begin to get their hands on them next Monday." (News24)

The government of Tanzania has pushed back against Makonda’s comments, despite the fact that he was appointed by Tanzanian president John Magufuli. The reality is that, for the sake of not pissing off the international community and having funding removed, Magufuli had no other choice. The response to Makonda’s comments were overwhelmingly critical, and Denmark even withheld $10 million in aid from the nation after less than two weeks of deliberation. Overall, hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid has been withdrawn since the comments were made.

Makonda was always going to denounce his political ally, but that doesn’t reveal his true feelings or change the state of reality for gays and lesbians in Tanzania or Africa more generally. The viral ‘Eat da Poo Poo’ video was originally recorded in Uganda. Sure, it’s hilarious for the average Westerner who knows nothing but progressive social mores, but the participants in the video weren’t joking, revealing a lack of education or compassion for anything remotely LGBTQ.

Time and again videos, headlines, and first-hand accounts reveal that life in Africa for homosexuals is not one filled with gay pride parades and rainbow flags hanging outside of homes or shanties. It is a life of secrecy and danger, and Paul Makonda’s are just the latest reminder of this sad reality.

The majority of African nations maintain penal codes that criminalize consensual homosexuality. Punishments on the continent include prison sentences as long as 14 years in Kenya and Gambia, death by stoning in Mauritania, and required prison sentences in the 5 to 10 year range in several other nations, for consensual homosexual sex.

No, Africa is not a nation of tolerance in this respect. And the outrage directed towards the leaders of Tanzania after the governor’s recent comments are disingenuous; that is, if those critics are willing to take honest stock of how the majority of African nations stack up by comparison.

Sure, a statement issued by the Tanzanian government spouted the cliché line about ‘respecting international agreements.’

"The United Republic of Tanzania continues and will continue to respect and protect such rights as contained in the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania," the statement said. But vocal critics and advocates of LGBT rights in Tanzania know better.

"The Tanzanian government is willing to risk its relationships with other countries to forge ahead with its persecution of homosexual people," Neela Ghoshal, a senior LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told News24.

While Goshal is correct in her assessment of persecution of homosexuals in Tanzania, the statement from the government would indicate that they do care about risking relationships with other countries – namely, the ones that provide them ‘aid’. But the lip service from the office of the president means little to those who pay attention. The lives of gays in the nation and continent will remain shrouded in secrecy. Openness will be met with persecution, regardless of hollow government-issued statements.

Tanzania has anti-gay legislation on the books. Makonda wasn’t making some rogue comment that is inconsistent with Tanzanian policy and values. While Makonda’s vow to essentially round ‘em up has upped the threat level to midnight, life is not drastically different for homosexuals in Tanzania than it was before Makonda’s comments.

‘In Tanzania, gay sex is illegal and can carry a life sentence, although the colonial-era law had rarely been enforced… “My government does not recognize me as a human, but [as] a curse and a sin,” said Vivian, a 24-year-old transgender woman living in the Dar es Salaam safe house. “I cannot walk to the city center to interact with others because people will start shouting ‘Makonda.’ ” (Wall Street Journal)

These were the conditions before Paul Makonda brought an international firestorm upon his nation and government, and it will be the conditions after the furor dies down and aid begins rolling back into Tanzanian cities, Dar al Salaam included. But, when that time comes, one thing will have changed: people outside of Tanzania will no longer care about the plight of the queer folk of Tanzania.

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