Ghana’s opportunistic moral panic
Ghana’s politicians are stoking a wave of politicised homophobia that sits at odds with the country’s international reputation. LGBTQI+ people are being punished for their advocacy with the threat of one of the world’s most draconian anti-LGBTQI+ laws. But while Africa remains one of the world’s most hostile regions for LGBTQI+ rights, recent progress in some other African countries proves there is nothing inevitable about this. Ghana’s president should engage with Ghanian human rights groups to chart a more constructive way forward.
A politically opportunistic moral panic towards LGBTQI+ people is underway in Ghana.
In February, an LGBTQI+ community centre in Accra shut down only a month after opening; government ministers and religious groups demanded it be closed, causing the centre to make the reluctant decision to cease its operations to protect the safety of its staff. This was the harbinger of worse to come.
Punished for becoming visible
Homosexuality is illegal in Ghana where, as in many African states, laws introduced in the British colonial era have never been repealed. But until recent years LGBTQI+ people in Ghana were not as at risk as in many other West African countries – notably Nigeria, where the criminalisation of LGBTQI+ people was reinforced in a 2014 law that bans LGBTQI+ organisations and threatens jail sentences for anyone who supports them.
But Ghana now risks going down the same road, as politicians have scented opportunity in the backlash that greeted the community centre’s opening. Now the situation for LGBTQI+ people seems worse than it has been for years. They are seemingly being punished for becoming more visible.
In May, 21 people were arrested by security forces while attending an LGBTQI+ paralegal training session. They were held in detention for three weeks until finally being granted bail, after which many went into hiding pending the trial, fearing for their safety. They were acquitted only on 5 August.
But the acquittal does not mean that the problems of Ghana’s LGBTQI+ people are over. In June, a group of eight members of parliament published a draft law that threatens to make things much worse.
Parliament started considering the proposed law in October. The law would punish same-sex acts with sentences of three to five years. It would make it a crime simply to be an LGBTQI+ person, and to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, or even offer support or express sympathy for LGBTQI+ people, with jail sentences for advocacy of up to 10 years. It would allow so-called ‘conversion therapies’ – discredited practices that falsely claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, with traumatising impacts.
This would be one the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQI+ laws. One of the members of parliament who proposed the bill stated that it came in direct response to LGBTQI+ advocacy, making clear that LGBTQI+ people are being punished for speaking out.
Seven of the eight politicians who introduced the bill belong to the opposition, and they seem to be using LGBTQI+ people to set something of a trap for President Nana Akufo-Addo, who seeks to present a positive international image of Ghana to attract investment. While President Akufo-Addo could veto the law if parliament passes it, this would then enable the opposition to characterise him as out of touch with homophobic public opinion.
The bill could well be passed. It enjoys cross-party support and the backing of the speaker of parliament. Anti-rights faith groups, allegedly connected to US far-right groups, are vocally supporting it.
Even if the law fails or is watered down, it can only help normalise homophobia and the rights denials and violence that are already growing. The experience of Ghana shows how quickly tacit acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, provided they stay largely under the radar, can flip into repression, pointing to the need for legal recognition of full and equal rights.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Danny Bediako is founder and executive director of Rightify Ghana, a human rights organisation that advocates for community empowerment and human rights, and documents and reports human rights abuses in Ghana.
The first time I read the bill, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: my right to exist in this country would be taken away from me. The bill promotes ‘conversion therapy’, making it a state function to torture people who question their sexuality or identify as intersex or transgender.
Even though it is bipartisan, the bill is being pushed mostly by the opposition: seven out of eight members of parliament supporting the bill are part of the opposition, including the speaker, who brought together the lawmakers and the homophobic group, the National Coalition for Proper Sexual Human Rights and Family Values. To promote the bill, they are using disinformation and lies, including incorrect HIV data.
If you ask me where all this hate is coming from, I would say it has been imported. The religious texts that are being used to condemn sexual minorities and the current bill are backed by the US far-right movement, and particularly the World Congress of Families, which held a conference in Ghana in 2019. Leading up to the conference, they hosted several key personalities in Ghana, including a former president, the national chief imam and a former speaker of parliament, to ensure that they would encourage homophobia in the background.
We believe that the US far-right movement has lost its own fight against equality, diversity and progressive values in the global west, so they have turned to Africa, which they view as fertile ground for their agendas. As early as 2017, we started to notice individuals urging the government to do something against the LGBTQI+ community. They did not seem to have enough resources to succeed, but once they formed an alliance with the World Congress of Families and began receiving funding, resources and technical support, they have been able to propose the worst bill we have ever seen go into our parliament.
The implications of the bill are already being felt, even before it has been passed. Blackmail has become a major issue faced by the LGBTQI+ community. We used to see two or three cases a week, but now we are getting about three per day. We are seeing homophobic people on dating sites and social media pose as gay to lure gay men into their homes, where they subject them to group violence. If the bill is passed, people like these will have free rein to harm others, because the law will condone their behaviour.
Ghanaians give much importance to the value of sympathy, but this bill is going to criminalise the exercise of this value. If an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to violence in public, nobody will come to their rescue because you can be prosecuted for that. According to the bill, if you know or suspect that someone is an LGBTQI+ person, you must report them to the police. This applies to nurses and other health workers, which will lead to fewer people seeking health services.
Our biggest priority is safety. Even before it is passed, we have already started seeing parts of the bill being implemented. For instance, we have seen an increase in arrests of our community members.
We are strategising against the bill and building alliances with mainstream organisations that have access to the legislature and the executive. This is not something one organisation can fight. It is a collective struggle.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Danny Bediako. Read the full interview here.
Not a one-way street
A wave of politicised homophobia seems to be underway in Cameroon too, where in May two transgender women received five-year sentences – they are currently on bail pending an appeal – and in February 13 people were arrested on charges of homosexuality after a raid on the offices of Colibri, a civil society organisation that provides HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services.
But it is not one-way traffic, and in contrast to Ghana, in Angola in February the government enacted a law decriminalising homosexuality, overturning colonial-era legislation. Angola followed in the footsteps of Gabon, where same-sex relations were decriminalised in 2020, and Botswana, where the High Court ruled in favour of decriminalisation in 2019, proving that there is nothing inevitable about a continental drift towards intolerance.
Another step forward was taken in June, when what was said to be Malawi’s first-ever Pride event took place in the capital, Lilongwe. With around 50 people taking part, this was a small start, but in a country where homosexuality is illegal, still a brave and significant one.
People are mobilising and Ghana’s draconian bill that runs counter to these trends will not be allowed to pass unopposed. An array of well-known people from the Ghanian diaspora, including actor Idris Elba, have expressed their solidarity with LGBTQI+ people and called for President Akufo-Addo to engage in dialogue. In August, United Nations human rights experts made clear that the proposed law violates Ghana’s existing international human rights commitments. International civil society is sounding the alarm, and in October, even the Archbishop of Canterbury put himself at odds with the Christian groups enthusiastically advocating for the law, expressing grave concern about it.
President Akufo-Addo has spoken of the need for tolerance and civil debate. Civil society, domestically and internationally, will keep urging him not to tarnish Ghana’s international reputation and instead follow in the footsteps of countries such as Angola and Gabon by taking the road of respecting rights.
CALLS FOR ACTION
President Akufo-Addo should urgently enter into dialogue with Ghanian human rights organisations over the implications of the proposed law.
Ghana’s international partners and United Nations human rights institutions should make clear that the proposed law is at odds with Ghana’s human rights obligations.
African states that take a more tolerant approach towards LGBTQI+ rights should push to make the monitoring of LGBTQI+ rights more prominent in African human rights institutions.