A crackdown on homosexuality in Tanzania has seen the country’s LGBT community go into hiding. We find out why, and explore what the future could hold.

In the last week of October last year, the governor of Dar es Salaam, the biggest city in the eastern African country of Tanzania, posted a video on YouTube. In the clip, Paul Makonda told viewers that he had: “received reports that there are so many homosexuals in our city, and these homosexuals are advertising and selling their services on the internet.” Makonda then appealed to Dar es Saalam’s five million inhabitants, saying: “Therefore, I am announcing this to every citizen. If you know any gays … report them to me.”

The response to the governor’s appeal was immediate. Makonda claimed – without offering any proof – that he received more than 5,700 messages from the public, including more than 100 names, after posting his video. Many officials, police officers and private citizens did not just follow the governor’s instructions but decided to go further.

For several days, the LGBT community in Dar es Salaam lived in fear. Colonial-era laws against “unnatural” sexual relations in Tanzania cover homosexuality, so anyone convicted in a court of law of such an offence could face decades in prison. “They are raiding houses,” one LGBT activist told The Guardian at the time. “It is a horrible thing …  So many people are leaving the city, running away. They are targeting the activists, saying we are promoting homosexuality. We have to hide.”

Following an international outcry, the Tanzanian government announced that Makonda, a fervent Christian and close ally of President John Magufuli, was not following official government policy. This was somewhat disingenuous. A series of measures targeting the LGBT community since Magufuli came to power in 2015 has included raids on gatherings that police believe are gay weddings, harassment of NGOs working to control the spread of HIV/Aids, and the targeting of activists by police.

Such problems are not limited to Tanzania, of course. Homosexuality is still illegal in 38 of 54 countries in Africa and prejudices remain entrenched everywhere, leading gay people to face horrendous discrimination or persecution.

“It is a trend everywhere in Africa,” says Frank Mugisha, an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda. “This doesn’t start with governments but with one individual, one politician who is just trying to make political capital. He can do that now and that’s very dangerous.” Even in South Africa, despite having a higher tolerance for homosexuality than most other countries on the continent, the LGBT community faces systematic discrimination and violence. One 2017 survey found that four out of 10 LGBT South Africans knew someone who had been murdered “for being or suspected of being” lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. 

One common narrative, voiced by politicians, soldiers and even pop stars, is that homosexuality is “un-African”.  Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, believes that sodomy “is against the law in Nigeria and abhorrent to our culture”.  Zimbabwe’s National Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, told a conference in 2017 that these “dehumanising practises … are brought into our communities in the name of civilisation”. Even Bobi Wine, a rebellious Ugandan reggae star turned politician currently leading a brave political campaign against Yoweri Museveni, the authoritarian leader of Uganda, has given no sign of revising homophobic views voiced in 2014, when his country was considering yet more repressive laws. These views, he said, were shared by “99 per cent Ugandans [and] Africans based on our culture, religion and constitution”.

Just because you’re a musician and against authoritarian leaders, it doesn’t necessarily make you progressive on LGBT rights. At least not in Africa. It wasn’t always this way, though. Historians’ and experts’ opinions may differ, but they point to a rich culture and tolerance of homosexual relations in African societies before invasion by European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, it was colonial administrators, then religious conservatives and finally venal leaders in need of populist scapegoats who have successively pushed homophobic agendas.

Mugisha, the activist, tells us he’s optimistic nonetheless. “Attitudes are changing. It’s 2019. There is social media, popular culture, celebrities coming out, more Africans travelling and seeing different cultures,” he said. “There will come a time soon when many Africans will be looking at other things like having good government, schools and roads, and they won’t care about this issue anymore.”