The last two months have seen an escalation of anti-gay rhetoric in the Ethiopian media.
Local anti-gay activists, who are thought to be funded by American Christian fundamentalists, stepped up their activities after the controversial tweet by a senior official two months ago. The tweet by the Minister of Youth, Women and Children, denouncing Uganda’s recent anti-gay legislation – which she later retracted with a vague and unconvincing claims of “hacking”. Later, she deleted her twitter account all together.
The incident apparently emboldened anti-gay activism which has been low-key for about four years, besides to the seldom alarmist news and articles on local papers.
Days after the controversial tweet, however, a youth group, affiliated to the ruling party, and a religious grouping, under the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, jointly announced their plan to hold an anti-gay rally in the capital city at an undisclosed date.
For once, nothing made sense.
In fact, at the time, I was bold enough to tell two correspondents of western media (from Reuters and Radio France International) that the planned anti-gay rally won’t take place.
My logic was simple: Ethiopia has already got a Crime Code that punishes same-sex practice of two consenting adults with up to three years imprisonment. Though, the law enforcement agencies largely ignored such cases. Where there is an aggravating ground – involving a child or rape or coercion, etc. – the punishment could reach up to fifteen years of imprisonment. In those circumstances, even foreign NGOs were not spared from the prosecution.
So, why would the government wish to stir emotions? Especially a public demonstration will put the government in a difficult situation of having to launch a witch-hunt or be accused of leniency. Not to forget that, in a highly conservative country like Ethiopia, one can have any sort of anti-gay legislation passed without having to agitate the public.
The natural explanation was that this could be part of a mobilization tactic for the next year election – copied from the Ugandan President paly-book. At least some in the ruling party circles felt the same, as they couldn’t make sense of the whole matter.
To my utter surprise, two weeks later, the date of the anti-gay rally was set. That news was accompanied by stories about a plan for an anti-Gay mass training and a draft legislation that makes homosexual activity a non-pardonable offence. The later was incomprehensible. As Ethiopia follows a parliamentary system, it was not logical for the government to tie its hands on matters that are naturally left to the discretion of the executive.
The escalation of the anti-gay rhetoric and its seemingly endorsement by the government gave rise to two new hypotheses. In light of the fact that the current ruling party is a very likely winner of the next election, it is neither desperate nor shortsighted to jump on a trivial bandwagon.
One explanation was that the happenstances were largely due to decisions made by officials without consensus in the leadership. A case in point would be, the draft legislation to make the homosexuality a non-pardonable offence was modified to that effect at an unusual step of the process.
The alternative hypothesis was that the government might have sought to placate conservative elements with an anti-gay rhetoric. As the history of the middle-east shows, governments often adopt conservative policies to appease the constituency of the groups which they are cracking down.
This week the government laid the speculation to rest.
Homosexuality is no longer on the list of the non-pardonable offences of that draft legislation and the anti-gay rally is cancelled. The official reason for the cancelation of the rally is opposition from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.(That is probably a story thread to follow).
Government spokesperson Minister Redwan told AFP that:
“the anti-gay rally was on certain groups’ agenda, but not the government’s ….. it is not a serious crime. Plus, it is not as widespread as some people suggest. It is already a crime and a certain amount of punishment is prescribed for it. The government thinks the current jail term in enough”.
One hopes this will be the end of the story.
Ethiopia has nothing to learn from American religious fanatics and the gay community is so small and light-years away from demanding any legal rights.
Those who claim to “love the sinner, hate the sin” would do better in an environment where the gays do not have to hide. Be it to provide them much needed health services or to “convert” them to heterosexuality.