The neo- liberal framework and Struggle of identities
By Leila van Rinsum
Leila van Rinsum studied Political Science at the University of Nairobi. She currently works as a freelance journalist and is copy editor at Pambazuka News.
While a number of countries already have discriminating laws against homosexuals in place, there have been intensified efforts to tighten laws on homosexuality as in Nigeria and Uganda, enforce discriminating law as in Malawi, Egypt and Cameroon or spreading hatred in public forums as in Ethiopia. Recently a number of Kenyan MPs formed a committee to demand for the stoning and life imprisonment of homosexuals . These actions have stirred up much attention in Africa and internationally. A closer look at the Political Economy of homophobia reveals the underlying motives to spread hate and the political and economic justification of the international global governance system to apply principles of Human Rights and justice so sporadically.
Entry point to control civic and personal space
As homosexuality remains a highly contentious issue fuelled by misconceptions and religious fundamentalism in many societies, it is a topic that easily serves as an entry point to police the civic and personal space. The control over individuals and society by regulating their opinions and actions ensures less civic engagements, thus consolidating political power of elites. Soon after Museveni signed the Anti- Homosexual Act (AHA), parliament tabled a legislation policing the clothing of women with the argument that women were inciting rape. In both cases the result was increased violence and hatred as members of the public took it upon them to execute the new laws. Similar combination of legislation was also introduced in Nigeria and discussed in Kenya. With it, patriarchy and heteronormativity are institutionalized in the legal and justice system and reproduced in society. This enforces the objectification and control over women’s and men’s bodies, behaviour and sexuality and lastly diminishes the civic and personal space, justifying violence against individuals and policing private actions. Both Uganda and Kenya are also struggling with bills limiting and controlling Civil Society, media and activism, laying the way for Museveni’s life-long presidency and Kenyatta’s personal state.
Diverting public attention, elections and scapegoating
Secondly, homosexuality is often brought up by political elites to divert public attention from larger malpractice such as corruption scandals, land grab, economic dealings or political uprising. The bonus, once stirred up, religious fundamentalists will help the cause without charge (in fact, some of them are paid by right wing extremists from the West, such as Scott Lively). In numerous instances, African political leaders bring up homosexuality to win sympathy during an election (and avoid uncomfortable topics). Former presidential candidate Raila Odinga applied it in 2012 at a political rally in Kibera asking for the prosecution of homosexuals according to law, at a time when then Ocampo was to reveal the political figures to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their involvement in instigating the 2007 Post Election Violence in Kenya. Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe used heavily discriminating and inciting rhetoric against homosexuals during his campaign in 2013, which was criticized severally due to fraud and vote rigging. Current Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto called homosexuals ‘dogs’ in the run up to elections in February 2013. Homosexuals and NGOs are often dismissed or delegitimized by spreading that they were Western- funded – a tactic that has been applied numerously for all sorts of causes, for example after the protests by Turkana residents against Tullow oil Company. Of course African societies have had by far a more diverse and deeper understanding of sexuality and identities than the acronyms and binaries Western language has spread. In the case of NGOs the argument holds ground, but then, we live in times were large aspects of society, economy and state are funded, so is the government budget, health reforms, Seed laws, VAT, military interventions and Christian fundamentalism.
In the militaristic, white Christian propaganda of terrorism, we have seen the onslaught of civilians based on their ethnic identity or religion; the looting, raping, arresting and harassment of people in Nairobi and all over the country. Homosexuals have functioned similar as scapegoats, utilized to divide society by creating fear and dehumanizing people as they are real ‘subjects’ that can be targeted in times of frustration and disillusionment and they serve perfectly to demonstrate ‘activity’ by the government. They function to propagate values that seemingly are moral, Christian and nationalistic – while in reality they preach hatred, intolerance and ignorance. Scapegoating of a group of people is particularly useful in concealing wider processes of malpractice, oppression and exploitation. In Kenya, the ruling elite is consolidating and increasingly personalizing power under Kenyatta; nowadays he features in almost every news item - we have seen him at inaugurations, meeting, launches, travelling, beaming in full military outfit and even at a national Christian prayer day. But since Kenyatta literally owns Kenya, he might as well be the image of Kenya. Which brings us to land. Forbes ranked Kenyatta as the 25th wealthiest man in Africa. He is also the only of the men ranked, whose source of wealth is land. Now, land is at the centre of conflict in Kenya (and many other African countries). Land is one of the remaining resources that are taken from the African people; ‘legally’ or illegally through discrediting titles, displacements, evictions, instigating violence or by cheating communities to sell their land a throw- away- prices - all of which has been rampant. Recently, media revealed that the office of the president heavily censored the land chapter of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Committee (TJRC) report – which was set up after the Post- Election Violence of 2007/2008 to investigate cause and effect of historical injustices, most importantly land issues. Land is connected to the control over resources such as oil, food production (which holds billions for commercial production, the fertilizer and GMO seed companies), infrastructure projects, pipelines etc. So, why not occupy peoples’ minds with terrorism and homosexuality, rather than looking at dispossession of a people of their land and food, while living costs keep rising.
Forming new political and economic alliances
As a result of reshuffling of polarity in the international system, the rise of BRICS and the decline of the West, new political and economic alliances are rising, such as the strengthened ties of African countries with China and the East, increased significance of trading blocs as well as an axis of West, South and East Africa. With ‘development’, trade and economic growth high on the agenda, anti- Western rhetoric of neo-colonialism and imperialism focuses on the political and civic domain. Less focus is placed on neo- liberal and neo- colonial ties of aid, finance, investment and trade. In the face of the ICC at the micro level, President Kenyatta has rallied sympathizers at various forums such as the AU and built alliance with other - by the West discredited - heads of states such as Museveni, Good luck Jonathan and Mugabe. These alliances are of political and economic nature. During a recent state visit to Kenya of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathon, who was accompanied by 50 Nigerian investors, the two countries signed an Oil and Gas Memorandum of Understanding, so that Kenya could benefit from Nigeria’s expertise in oil refinery . The handling of the recent discovery of oil in Turkana, which is accompanied by clashes with the community and secret backdoor deals, seems evidence that Kenya is already putting Nigeria’s expertise into praxis.
Resources and land ‘freed’ for the market invites the latest scramble over African resources in form of investments and signifies Africa’s high economic importance. Kenya’s Vision 2030 outlines a number of such investment ‘opportunities’ such as the mega- infrastructure project of Lamu Port Southern Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), intensification of oil and mineral exploration and the planned increase of agricultural productivity – all of which have come at great cost for the people who live in these investment areas.
Maintaining political and economic control over Africa’s resources
In these ‘uncertain times’, the West needs to secure its hegemony over African resources, land and benefits of high economic growth. In this regard using Western notions of democracy and human rights or ‘gay rights’ as the new frontier, the West has frequently demonstrated its political, economic and military dominance as in the case of military intervention in Libya ‘for democracy’ or the announcement of aid cuts in Malawi or Uganda. In 2011 Cameron announced that Britain would tie aid to the rights of homosexuals. After the signing of the Anti- Homosexual bill in Uganda, John Kerry and Obama announced that this would have negative consequences for Ugandan- US relations. The World Bank put a 90 million dollar loan meant to reform Uganda’s Health system on halt.
African Queer organizations and activists have continuously criticized aid cuts and Western public announcements as sparking discrimination and violent attacks on the ground while supporting the myth that homosexuality is Western . Further, Queers are part of society and will be equally affected by aid cuts, e.g. a deteriorating health system. Lastly, such public declarations undermine the work of Queer activists and organizations in African countries. Above that, there is an on-going debate about the utility or rather harm of aid altogether as aid has been part of treating social and political symptoms of oppression, while maintaining vast imbalances in the global economic system that has caused the plundering of African resources and people by the collusion of elites. Aid ties have also shaped the agenda of Queer organizations in Africa with focus on legislation and visibility, such as concepts of ‘coming out’. There are middle and upper class Queers, who make decision for others and travel to world conference, who can hardly claim to speak for – lets say – a Queer piki piki rider in Dandora, Nairobi. Simply said, Queer NGOs are part of the larger NGO symptom that has to a great extent ignored socio- economic analysis of oppression. Blessol Gathoni pointedly concludes: “The end result of this catastrophic deal, as in most struggles, has been a rise of donor- motivated LGBTI-Q activism and organisations that are ‘visionary’ driven, impractical, capitalistic and commercialised – mostly marginalising the grassroots’ struggles, realities, concepts and solutions.”
Seeming progressive while justifying oppressions
The often highly publicized statements, like US foreign minister Kerry’s comparison of the Ugandan Anti- Homosexual bill with apartheid laws and legislature during the Nazi regime, fuels racist Western conception of African countries being backward and the presumable progressiveness of Western civilized democratic states. Its discourse is also rooted in western notions of visibility of Queers and legislation.
Recently the World Bank has joined the agenda for ‘gay rights’, announcing it would review its policies for loans in order to include provisions for human rights and discrimination against LGBTI. As part of the discourse, the World Bank has calculated the cost of homophobia in India in a recently released presentation . Such calculations simplify discrimination as single issues and obscure the wider economic causes of discrimination and exclusion. Poverty in itself is discrimination; poverty is not inherent, but it is made and maintained. For the World Bank to calculate the cost of the health sector and unemployment without looking at the policies and behaviours that put structures in place, which exclude a number of people from access to health and education by forcing countries to keep expenses in the social sector at a constant low, encouraging militarism, keeping people in dependency through minimal wages, foster economic inequality, justify land evictions and signing over of food sovereignty to multinationals, creating tax havens and EPZ is ironic- at best. This is yet another way to foster the struggle of identities rather than tackle the root causes which is an unjust and unequal global financial and economic system.
Politics of identities to divide and rule
With increased communication across time and space, vast availability of information, the division along identities and issues remains pivotal to suppress massive uprisings. It is much easier for the West and global financial, economic and governance institutions to deal with identity issues rather than being forced to change the rules. Instead of looking at economic justice, equality and changing of powers structures, instead of looking at the system that creates and maintains poverty, even Civil Society has opted to look at ‘minorities’ - people living with disabilities, peasants, women, children, L, G, B, T, I, thereby obscuring the shared struggle and connections of oppressions.
It relies on the misconception that identity is singular and exclusive, while it is diverse and inclusive. However, there is an uprising in Africa that looks beyond identities and questions neo- liberal tenets and corporate governance, an uprising that seeks to redefine power structures for all oppressed. And there is an emerging Queer African movement that situates the Queer struggle in these wider uprisings in Africa for economic justice and ending economic exploitation. These movements discuss Queer liberation instead of ‘gay rights’, and view liberation with an understanding of pluralism and complexity of sexuality and gender.
So, just to recap, the benefits of homophobia (for political and economic elites) are effective diversion of public attention from uncomfortable topics (such as corruption scandals, selling of the continent etc.), and discrediting or delegitimizing opposing voices while consolidating power. Or in case of Western elites pretending to be progressive while maintaining systems of oppression, exploitation and war when recolonizing the African continent.
On the costs of homophobia (for society in general), it spreads hate and violence, which is more often than not taken to the Grassroots. It limits discussion and the possibility of re- writing white men’s patriarchal and racist history of binary conceptions of sexuality. Homophobia is allowing politicians to manipulate public opinion for their own gains and fuels the division of a critical mass that demands the benefits of African labour and resources for the African people. Further it divides a critical mass into struggles over identities rather than over multiple layers of injustice and oppression that are inherently connected.