U.S. spotlights 5 cruel countries for LGBTs in West Africa

West African gays and lesbians face the most extreme harassment in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Sierra Leone, according to the U.S. State Department’s newly released report on human rights.

Below is what the report had to say about the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in each of those countries.

This post is the first in a series about the state department’s account of some of the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal.


Cameroon — Consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 CFA francs ($40 to $400). During the year 10 persons were arrested for suspected homosexual activity, although most were not engaged in homosexual acts at the time of arrest.

Gay men and lesbians generally kept a low profile because of the pervasive societal stigma, discrimination, and harassment as well as the possibility of imprisonment. Gay men and lesbians suffered from harassment and extortion by law enforcement officials. According to one human rights NGO, government officials and private citizens sometimes conspired to make false allegations of homosexuality to harass enemies or extort money.

In March Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was sentenced to three years in jail by the Yaounde lower court for homosexual activity.

Jean-Claude Roger Mbede with activist attorney Alice Nkom of Cameroon
Jean-Claude Roger Mbede with activist attorney Alice Nkom of Cameroon (Photo courtesy of Amnesty International)

On July 25, police detained three men returning from a bar in Yaounde because two of the men appeared effeminate, according to the Association for the Defense of Homosexuality and Human Rights Watch. The three were jailed for one week before being charged, and the two who appeared effeminate were beaten on the soles of their feet until they confessed to being gay, according to a civil society group working on their behalf; the third man was released. After repeated postponements, a trial was held on September 26, at which the two men who confessed to being gay were sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs ($400). An arrest warrant was issued for the third man, who was convicted and sentenced in absentia to the same punishment.

On January 13, following the EU decision to finance the Project to Provide Assistance and Guidance to Sexual Minorities, the then minister of external relations Henri Eyebe Ayissi convoked Raul Mateus Paula, the EU ambassador, to convey the government’s opposition to the decision, noting that the law criminalizes homosexuality.

Several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations operated in the country. There was a pattern of discrimination against members of such groups, although no official cases were available for citation.

Ghana's location in Africa
Ghana’s location in Africa

Ghana — According to the criminal code, “unnatural carnal knowledge” is defined as “sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal.” It states that individuals who have unnatural carnal knowledge “of any person of sixteen years or over with his consent” is guilty of a misdemeanor. There has been considerable debate over whether this legislation could be used to prosecute consenting gay adults, and there were no reports that it had ever been used.

The former and current commissioners of the CHRAJ spoke out against discrimination and advocated the need to protect the human rights of every citizen as provided for in the constitution. In November media accounts reported British Prime Minister Cameron was considering suspending direct aid to countries with poor records on LGBT rights. In response President Mills commented that Ghana was committed to upholding human rights as provided by the constitution, but he would not initiate a change to the law.

John Mills, president of Ghana
John Mills, president of Ghana

LGBT persons faced widespread discrimination, as well as police harassment and extortion attempts. Gay men in prison were often subjected to sexual and other physical abuse.

In June 2010 more than 1,000 protesters in Takoradi, Western Region, participated in a peaceful rally against reports of gay and lesbian activities in their city. This was reportedly the first such protest in the country.

In May 2010 an HIV/AIDS training workshop was held in Takoradi for health- care workers. After the workshop, The Daily Graphic announced that 8,000 gay persons had been “registered” in the Western and Central Regions. However, experts in the field denied that there had been any such “registration.” After the workshop there was significant negative reporting in the media about homosexuality.

In a June 2010 interview with The Daily Graphic, the Western Region minister called on the government to take steps to combat homosexuality. He included the possibility of police raids on locales frequented by gay men and lesbians, efforts by community leaders to “wean young people” away from homosexuality, and a public condemnation by the government. However, no arrests of persons were made in connection with his comments by year’s end, and he did not repeat his call.

It was reported that four men who worked within the community of gay men were arrested in May 2010 in connection with an alleged sexual assault and were later charged with sodomy. The case was first brought to the Takoradi Circuit Court on August 24; however, it had not been heard by year’s end.

Nigeria's location in Africa
Nigeria’s location in Africa

Nigeria — Consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal under federal law and punishable by prison sentences of up to 14 years. In the 12 northern states that have adopted sharia, adults convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity may be subject to execution by stoning, although no such sentences have been imposed.

Because of widespread societal taboos against homosexuality, very few persons openly revealed their orientation. The NGOs Global Rights and The Independent Project provided lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups with legal advice and training in advocacy, media responsibility, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Organizations such as the Youths 2gether Network also provided access to information and services on sexual health and rights for LGBT persons, sponsored programs to help build skills useful in social outreach, and provided safe havens for LGBT individuals.

The government and its agents did not impede the work of these groups during the year.

However, on November 29, the Senate passed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, 2011, that would prohibit participating in or witnessing same-sex marriage ceremonies, criminalize public displays of affection between same-sex couples, and criminalize LGBT organizations. The bill includes penalties, including a 14-year prison sentence for individuals entering into a same-sex marriage, a 10-year sentence for public displays of same-sex affection, and a 10-year sentence for any individual who registers, operates, or participates in LGBT clubs, societies, organizations, processions, or meetings. The bill also calls for a 10-year sentence for any individual aiding, abetting, or witnessing the solemnization of a same-sex marriage. The House of Representatives conducted a first reading of the bill on December 7 but adjourned for the year before conducting a second and third reading and bringing the bill to a final vote.

In March a gang of 10 boys beat and raped three girls they suspected were lesbians in Benin, Edo State. The boys videotaped the attack, and the footage circulated throughout the state. The girls went into hiding due to fear of further attacks and of harassment by the general public. There were no charges filed and no further developments in the case by year’s end.

Authorities took no action against persons who stoned and beat members of the House of Rainbow Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBT-friendly church in Lagos, in 2008. The attacks occurred after four newspapers published photographs, names, and addresses of church members. During the year church members and the clergy continued to receive threatening e-mail messages, telephone calls, and letters from unknown persons. The church and partner groups cancelled conferences on sexual rights and health scheduled for Lagos and Abuja in December due to concerns about the safety of conference attendees after the proposed Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) bill refocused negative attention on the Church. The trial of 18 men, originally charged in 2008 with sodomy and subsequently charged with vagrancy, had been adjourned multiple times. All defendants had posted bail, set at 20,000 naira ($123), and gained their release. No resolution of the case had been announced by year’s end.

Sierra Leone's location in Africa
Sierra Leone’s location in Africa

Sierra Leone — The constitution does not offer protection from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. A law from 1861 prohibits male homosexual acts (“buggery” and “crimes against nature”); however, there is no legal prohibition against female-to-female sex. The 1861 law carries a penalty of life imprisonment for “indecent assault” upon a man or 10 years for attempting such an assault. However, the law was not enforced in practice. During Sierra Leone’s Universal Periodic Review in May in the UNHRC, the attorney general and minister of justice told the Working Group that all persons in the country will be protected regardless of their sexual orientation. However, the government subsequently rejected three of 129 Working Group recommendations, two calling for decriminalizing all sexual activity between consulting adults and one calling for legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite the lack of enforcement of the 1861 law, police continued to harass, detain, and beat persons perceived to be of the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender (LGBT) community. For example, on July 9, a group called police to complain that neighbors were throwing stones and shouting homophobic epithets at them, but the police arrested eight victims instead because they were perceived to be gay. They were held overnight and released without charge.

Men dressed as women were singled out for detention, harassment, and public humiliation but were not formally charged with any crime or misdemeanor.

A few organizations, including DignitySL and the local chapter of Why Cant We Get Married.com, worked to support LGBT persons, but they maintained very low profiles. Gay pride parades and other public displays of solidarity could not safely take place.

Social discrimination based on sexual orientation occurred in nearly every facet of life for known gays and lesbians, and many chose to have heterosexual relationships and family units to shield them. In the areas of employment and education, sexual orientation was the basis for abusive treatment, which led individuals to leave their jobs or courses of study. It was difficult for gay men and lesbians to receive the health services due to fear that their confidentiality rights would be ignored if they were honest about their ailments; many chose not to be tested or treated for sexually transmitted infections. Secure housing was also a problem for LGBT persons. Their families frequently shunned gay children, leading some to turn to prostitution to survive. Adults could lose their leases if their sexual orientation became public. Lesbian girls and women were also victims of “planned rapes” that were initiated by family members in an effort to change their sexual orientation

Togo's location in Africa
Togo’s location in Africa

Togo — The law provides that a person who engages in a consensual same-sex sexual act may be punished by one to three years’ imprisonment and fined 100,000 to 500,000 CFA francs ($208 to $1,041). There were no prosecutions for homosexuality or the often related charge of indecent assault. The eight persons arrested for same-sex sexual conduct in 2010 remained incarcerated.

Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity occurred, and there were no known lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations.

Gambia — The report also discussed The Gambia, where the state department found little sign of trouble in 2011:

The law establishes prison terms ranging from five to 14 years for any man who commits in public or private “any act of gross indecency,” engages a male sex worker, or has actual sexual contact with another man; however, to date, no one has been prosecuted. There was no similar law targeting women. There was strong societal discrimination against LGBT individuals, some of whom were shunned.

In a January speech to army officers, President Jammeh announced he wanted a professional army “free of gays and saboteurs.” In a 2009 speech before the National Assembly, President Jammeh called homosexual conduct “strange behavior that even God will not tolerate.” Despite such statements, there were no reported incidents of physical violence against LGBT individuals during the year. There were no LGBT organizations in the country.

In 2012, however, police arrested 20 people for an alleged “homosexual dance.” They are still awaiting trial.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at info@76crimes.com.


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