Violence, hypocrisy imperil LGBT people in Ivory Coast

Jean Marc Yao, human rights consultant in Ivory Coast, wrote this analysis of the recent attacks on LGBT people there. The English version is below. A French version, also on this blog, is entitled “Côte d’Ivoire: L’hypocrisie et la violence contre les LGBT.”

"Stop homos" says a sign posted by neighbors of LGBT rights activists in Ivory Coast. (Photo courtesy of Alternative Cote d'Ivoire)
Anti-gay protesters in Ivory Coast posted the sign “Stop homos” shortly before they launched attacks on the local LGBT rights group Alternative CI. (Photo courtesy of Alternative Cote d’Ivoire)

Listening to a story by Maureen Grisot that was broadcast on Radio France International (RFI) last Oct. 17 [“Ivory Coast: A country that’s (a little) more tolerant of homosexuality,” “Côte d’Ivoire : un pays (un peu) plus tolérant face à l’homosexualité”], a casual listener might think that LGBT people lived in peace in Ivory Coast. Homosexuality is not illegal in that West Africa country. You might actually believe that the rights and freedoms of sexual minorities were guaranteed, contrary to what happens in most parts of the continent.

But recent news reveals that the reality is quite different. In Ivory Coast, diversity of gender and sexual orientation is not accepted. LGBT people there are at serious risk. The proof: People can rise up and insist that an honest citizen leave their neighborhood simply because his sexual orientation is different from their own and because he works with homosexuals.

Worse, almost under the eyes of state television’s cameras, homophobic neighbors launched a punitive expedition against a local NGO that was active in the fight against AIDS in the gay community. Even more intriguing: This criminal assault was carefully planned by a senior officer of the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI ) currently on duty in the Republican Guard (GR).  This attack demonstrates that the rights of LGBT people in Ivory Coast can go no lower.

Sacs de déchets ont été jetés devant le domicile de militants des droits LGBT en Côte-d'Ivoire. (Photo par Alternative Côte d'Ivoire)
Bags of garbage were dumped outside the home of LGBT rights activists in Ivory Coast. (Photo courtesy of Alternative Cote d’Ivoire)

In fact, although the media blamed local residents for sacking and looting the headquarters of Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, much-feared criminals from another area had been brought in to do the dirty work.

According to reliable information received by the Executive Director of Alternative Côte d’ Ivoire, members of the notorious machete-wielding Abobo gang were responsible for the looting and destruction.  It was homophobia that brought together those thugs and the government’s security forces. Thick as thieves, they went forth hand in hand to “smash the faggots,” as this type of anti-LGBT violence is often labeled.

Maybe that army officer wasn’t there in an official capacity, which could mean that we shouldn’t accuse the state of allying itself with the  Abidjan underworld. However, it’s surprising that the attack lasted about four hours during daylight without any police force responding to stop the raid. That makes the role of the state more troubling. How can we explain this inaction during an attack on the offices and staff of an NGO working on behalf of human rights?  Are we not entitled to suspect state complicity , especially when we see this attitude from police in the 22nd district who are responsible for the safety of people and property in the area?

Panneau posé à la maison des militants des droits LGBT en Côte-d'Ivoire. (Photo par Alternative Côte d'Ivoire)
“No fags,” says a sign posted at the home of LGBT rights activists in Ivory Coast. (Photo courtesy of Alternative Cote d’Ivoire)

For some time, the minds of Ivorian citizens have been prompted to turn  against LGBT people.  The press, which has demonstrated its ability to turn Ivorians against each other, is responsible for this subtle work.  After promoting jingoism, xenophobia, sectarianism, tribalism and religious fundamentalism, it raised up homophobia as its new monster.

To measure the effect, read the comments that followed the signing of a  financing agreement between the French Embassy in Ivory Coast and Alternative Côte d’Ivoire. Personally, I tried to draw the authorities’ attention to what was in the newspapers. I mentioned the murder of an LGBT rights activist in Cameroon — someone who campaigned for the fundamental rights of all human beings — as a reminder that words are the starting point. The prologue to that heinous act was homophobic remarks in the Cameroonian press. I pointed out that what was said in the press in Ivory Coast was a preface to a pogrom, which needed to be resisted.  I wrote a modest article that was aimed about resisting the direction the country was heading.

I sent that article to Fraternité Matin, the government newspaper where I used to publish pieces about human rights education. Not only was it never published — although it was clearly better than any other articles I had published previously — but an article clearly inciting homophobia was published instead, as if to taunt LGBT people.  It was a rant full of hate speech.

When you see what the state media has published, should we be surprised that a senior officer in the national army planned a special operation against LGBT people?  Shouldn’t we understand that the behavior of police officers in the 22nd district is a logical outcome of the article that Fraternité Matin published?

My biggest concern is that the troubles of Alternative Côte d’Ivoire are the beginnings of a large-scale persecution of LGBT people in Ivory Coast.

I fear that such attacks will spread and be mimicked by others if the perpetrators and their accomplices are not severely punished.  An even more important task is to educate the Ivorian press about LGBT rights. A strong effort to reach that goal is needed immediately.

Ivory Coast resident Jean Marc Yao is human rights defender who works at the Interafrican Association for the Promotion of Health and Human Rights (IPSDH). He is a member of the Ivorian League of Human Rights (LIDHO) and a consultant at the Association of Midwives of Côte d’Ivoire (ASF-CI) and Alternative Côte d’Ivoire.

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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, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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