West African nations display a mix of mostly abusive responses to LGBT people, including denial that they exist, lynchings and arrests even without anti-homosexuality laws.
Two West African bloggers provide an overview of how the region treats its LGBT citizens. This article is published here courtesy of ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association:
The Situation of the LGBT Community in West Africa
By Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye and Emma Onekekou
The context of West Africa is peculiar as a “false calm” exists when speaking of the rights of LGBTI persons. This silence is deceptive as it could suggest that the situation of lesbians, gays, trans and intersex persons is positive. However, nothing could be further from the truth. One of the problems in West Africa is that there is no political will to support and respect the rights of LGBT persons. There is a certain level of political will when it comes to health issues and HIV/AIDS, related to the taking care of men who have sex with men (MSM). However, it is exclusively focused on this group to the detriment of women who have sex with women and trans persons.
The socio-legal diversity in the region
The region is characterised by its socio-cultural and legislative diversity, which makes LGBT communities face distinct legal differences. These go from the explicit criminalisation (in countries such as Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo) to countries with a certain level of anti-discrimination protection (such as Cape Verde). In a more ambiguous situation are some countries that do not explicitly criminalise same-sex sexual acts. However, in practice there have been recorded cases of detention and prosecution for such acts (such as Ivory Coast).
Religion has a big influence in judicial rulings of some West African countries, such as Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Northern Nigeria, where Islam has a strong presence in both the social notions of sexuality and its application in the law. In effect, Islamic Sharia law is one more source of law amongst others, in which same-sex sexual acts are criminalised, in some cases the death penalty applies.
Generally speaking, it can be said that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has opened some space for LGBT activism. The focus of the issue regarding men who have sex with men (MSM) has shaped the emergence of the LGBT community and given certain access to funding. Therefore, the rights of LGBT people in the region are mostly addressed through the issues of public health. This approach has however, brought some consequences for lesbians, bisexual women and trans persons whose own issues remain marginalised.
Even so, in recent years, a broader approach for LGBTI organisations has progressively emerged. For example, in the Ivory Coast a federation of LGBTI organisations called Couple Akwaba was created, which brought together 15 of the 23 organisations in the country. This organisation faces multiple challenges, such as obtaining information on time and from reliable sources in the face of violations of LGBT persons’ rights in the country and the resources to document them, give psychological support to victims of attack and/or arbitrary detention due to the sexual orientation or the gender identity, or even to provide support for temporary relocation in grave situations.
In the Ivory Coast, despite the fact that no law exists which criminalises consensual same-sex sexual relations, at the end of 2016 a judge in the city of Sassandra used article 360 of the Penal Code to condemn 2 men to 18 month imprisonment. They were caught by the uncle of one of the men, and after having been reported, they admitted before the judge to having been in a loving relationship.
In Burkina Faso, in the period between March 2017 and December 2018, there were 10 LGBTI persons detained in Ouagadougou (the capital city) and 38 more in the municipality of Bobo-Dioulasso (the second biggest city in the country and predominantly Islamic). Despite this, the Burkinabe penal code does not actually prohibit consensual same-sex sexual acts. In October 2017, two gay men reported to the authorities that their phones had been stolen. On being summoned by the authorities after the criminal had been apprehended and phones recovered, the claimants were detained as the phones had contained same-sex pornographic content. The two men were eventually freed thanks to the intervention of a community leader in Ouagadougou and having paid a fine of 40,000 francs.
In countries where same-sex sexual relations are criminalised, there are few cases where the persons arrested have been found “in flagrant delicto”. In the majority of cases, the arrests and prosecutions take place based on third party accusations (sometimes anonymous) that report people for having had allegedly performed same-sex sexual acts. Such was the case where a group of 2 men and 2 women were detained on 15 September 2018 in the city of Dakar, Senegal. The authorities of Godppeul arrested them as they were reported for committing “unnatural acts” and having gone against the moral order.
Violence and social prejudice
Same-sex sexual acts continues to be a taboo subject in almost all West African countries, particularly in countries such as Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Benin, where the existence of LGBTI people is often completely denied. Public opinion and the media usually consider sexual orientation as a “choice” that reflects a “sexual perversion” or even motivated by “economic incentive”.
The growth in widespread general homophobia has justified multiple forms of violence against LGBTI people: from arbitrary detention by the police, school exclusion, denial of medical attention, expulsion from the home, arbitrary dismissal from employment to lynching and murder. In many cases the attacks are recorded on phones and go viral being shared on social media.
On 15 January 2019, two young men were discovered in the district of Wolofobougou- Bolibana, Bamako, Mali, kissing in the street. Neighbours and some police officers dressed as civilians attacked and beat them in a type of lynching. In some areas of Ghana, homophobic gangs lynch LGBT persons, later terrorising their partners and families.25 LGBT people live in an increasingly hostile environment, suffering increasingly violent attacks and arbitrary detention. This happens with the acquiescence of the States of the region who give no response to these violations.26 Even in Benin where consensual same-sex sexual relations are not criminalised, LGBT persons are forced to live in hiding.27
New forms of organised violence and the media
The growth of homophobia has found new ways of operating by harassing, exposing and humiliating LGBT persons through false social network profiles. In 2017, the movement “Fight against homosexuality in Mali” (LCHM) was created, made up of numerous Malian residents, although its main leaders live abroad (chiefly in France, Italy, Canada and the United States). In Mali social networks, the news group of the movement is achieving high levels of participation in what they call “hunting homosexuals”.
In all of West Africa, we are seeing a stronger media focus on sexual orientation issues, with the media tending to publish incendiary articles and reports on the issue. It is common to read extremely pejorative content regarding same-sex sexual acts, denigrating references of LGBT people, equating it with paedophilia and prostitution, as well as negative descriptions of human rights defenders.
In the face of such levels of aggressions, many LGBT people in West Africa have no other choice but to leave their countries in search of asylum. In general, the majority of victims of arbitrary attacks and detention due to their sexual orientation or gender identity go to neighbouring countries or Europe and other western countries.
Access to economic support
On the economic front, LGBTI organisations in West Africa are responsible for the plurality of self-employed activity which generates income. This highlights the vulnerability of LGBTI people in this regard. In fact, gender identity expression can be a barrier to employment. This problem is still more worrying in the case of trans people, who in most countries are unable to change their gender marker on their identity cards, diplomas and other necessary documents. Some trans people have been forced to completely abandon their sources of income, and on occasion are arrested for the crime of “identity theft”, as was the case of Lyly.
About the authors: Ababacar Ndoye is a blogger (@Tous_pour_1) and human rights activist in Senegal. Emma Onekekou is a blogger (@EmmalInfos) and human rights activist in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.