Malawi outraged as West opposes revival of gay arrests

Malawi President Peter Mutharika (Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons)
Malawi President Peter Mutharika (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Malawi is no longer a beacon of hope for human rights activists; instead it may be backsliding into an official embrace of anti-gay repression that the country had left behind.

At the same time, many Malawians are focusing relatively little on whether the country’s anti-homosexuality law, Section 153, is a good one.

Instead, their focus has been on what Western leaders and activists had to say about the resumption of arrests under Section 153. Many are outraged that Westerners are saying anything.

Section 153 of the country’s penal code prohibits sodomy (“carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”) and provides for a punishment of up to 14 years in prison for that offense.  Opponents of that law argue that it violates the Malawian constitution.

During the regime of President Joyce Banda (2012-2014), the government declared a moratorium on arrests under that law and the Malawi High Court decided to review its constitutionality.

Under the new president, Peter Mutharika, who took office in May 2o14, the first arrests for same-sex intimacy came on Dec. 7, 2015, when Cuthbert Kulemela, 19, and Kelvin Gonani, 39, were arrested for allegedly having sexual intercourse inside Gonani’s home.

Malawian human rights advocates and LGBTI activists protested, as did Human Rights Watch and several Western ambassadors to Malawi.

Much of Malawian media’s attention has since been devoted to the Westerners’ statements.

For example, U.S. Ambassador Virginia Palmer stated on the embassy’s Facebook page:

Virginia Palmer, current U.S. ambassador to Malawi (Photo courtesy of
Virginia Palmer, current U.S. ambassador to Malawi (Photo courtesy of

I remind the government of its stated policy not to arrest, detain, charge, or pursue people engaged in consensual same-sex activity. …  I urge the government to make good on its international human rights obligations, drop the charges, and resolve this unfortunate incident as quickly as possible.

These are some of the articles that appeared in response to that statement and similar ones from British and German officials and from Human Rights Watch:

US orders Malawi to free gay pair (Malawi24)

The United States of America government through its embassy in Lilongwe has ordered Malawi Government to drop charges against Cuthbert Kulemela, 19, and Kelvin Gonani, 39, the two gay people arrested recently for having sex with each other.

In a statement posted on their official Facebook page, the US ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, says she is deeply concerned with the arrest of teenager and his partner in the capital city.

Malawians who commented on the US embassy’s post have responded by demanding the Ambassador Palmer to leave the country.

Donors angry with ‘gay’ arrest (The Times of Malawi)

Pastor Zacc Kawalala (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Pastor Zacc Kawalala (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The US Embassy’s statement which has been posted on its Facebook page has sparked the wrath of some citizens on the Facebook community.

Well known evangelist Pastor Zacc Kawalala wrote, “LGBTIs rights have not been declared fundamental human rights in any instruments. So please let’s stop this cultural imperialism. …

Malawians react to ‘donor anger’ over gay couple arrest (The Times of Malawi)

This stand by the US ambassador … attracted angry comments from Malawians on the social media with the underlying concern that acceptance of LGBTI persons is an imposition from donors, led by the US and UK government.

“Malawi should tell this woman…that time for dictating or ruling Malawi from the back door is over and am sure she wants to become an enemy of Malawians. How can people of Malawi stay quiet and watch somebody sodomise our boys by enticing them,” says one follower of the story on Times Group facebook page.

Donors should respect our culture (column in The Times)

The recent outburst by some foreign diplomats on the issues of gays has put many Malawians into a dungeon of anger. I am one of Malawians who feels that foreign diplomats should respect that Malawi is a sovereign nation with its own ways of doing things. …

As long as we choose to depend on the west on our developmental programmes, they shall manipulate our thinking and corrode our values. Am not surprised that the west is getting an overwhelming support from some quarters in Africa — it’s simple we are praising people who are ‘feeding us’; you don’t bite a finger that feeds you.

It is high time Africans did things the right way without being intimidated.

Malawi reportedly depends on foreign aid for 40 percent of its national budget.

Donors go nuts (Malawi24)

US envoy urges Malawi to drop charges for gay couple (Nyasa Times)

Open letter to Virginia Palmer: we are not gays in Malawi (Malawi24)

Virginia Palmer, we have been disappointed and highly offended by your meddling in our country’s affairs. We still do not understand why you Americans, being civilized as you claim to be, will spend your energy telling us which part of our own constitution we must or must not follow.

UK parliament discusses Malawi gay ‘horrifying news’ (Nyasa Times)

UK against discrimination of gays in Malawi (Nyasa Times)

German says ‘gay rights are human rights’ (Nyasa Times)

Germany urges mutual respect on gays (The Nation)

Germany weighs in on gay issue (The Times)

Peter Woeste, current German ambassador to Malawi (Photo courtesy of Nyasa Times)
Peter Woeste, current German ambassador to Malawi (Photo courtesy of Nyasa Times)

German Ambassador to Malawi, Peter Woeste, has expressed his disappointment with the Malawi government and the nation as a whole, following the arrest of suspected gay men in Lilongwe, a few days ago. …

In a statement released Thursday, Woeste questioned the way Malawi is branded as a ‘God fearing’ nation, saying the comments and reactions towards the incident do not match that of a ‘God fearing’ nation. [That refers to Malawi

“… I am deeply disturbed by ill-mannered reactions I am reading on the social media, especially [that] people who defend LGBTI … rights are confronted with violent and disrespectful verbal abuse.

“Are those the same fellow brothers and sisters who are normally very vociferous about the idea of a “Christian Nation”? Are those the same people who ask for a prayer at the beginning of every meeting?” queried the German Envoy.

Woeste further said his government is committed and passionate about human rights, arguing that LGBTI are also human rights.

“ I welcome the government’s policy, not to arrest, detain, charge or pursue people engaged in consensual same-sex activity. I trust that this policy continues to be implemented by all relevant authorities. That puts Malawi in line with the modern nations of the world,” reads the statement.


In addition to the focus on Westerners, some coverage was devoted to what actually happened and to the domestic politics of the situation.

The Nation reported on Dec. 17 that “President Mutharika -— currently on a charm offensive to woo back donors … — on Monday expressed ignorance on the arrest of the two men at a time when there is a moratorium in place, but promised to inquire from the Minister of Home Affairs on the status of the charges against the two.”

Malawi News Now republished almost unchanged this blog's article, "Malawi arrests came with threats, assault, extortion."
Malawi News Now republished almost unchanged this blog’s article, “Malawi arrests came with threats, assault, extortion.”

A headline in Malawi24 stated that the opposition People’s Party, formerly led by Joyce Banda, has “change[d] tune on homosexuality.” The article refers to a proposal, previously floated and harshly criticized, to call a referendum on the anti-gay law. Human rights activists oppose such a move, arguing that people’s human rights should be guaranteed, not be put to a popular vote.

Another article in Malawi24 reported the position of the Malawi Congress Party opposition party that “the country had more pressing issues” and should not “waste time debating on homosexuality.”

“We need to prioritise on the welfare of poor Malawians than issues involving one or two people,” said party spokesperson Jessie Kabwila.

Without permission, Malawi News Now republished almost unchanged this blog’s article, “Malawi arrests came with threats, assault, extortion.”

The Nation published an article about two gay men in southern Malawi who told of being assaulted, mistreated by police and refused representation by lawyers because of their sexual orientation.



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 [email protected]


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  1. (correcting an earlier comment)

    I am posting this from Malawi.

    1…The charges have been dropped.

    Doubtless activists in the First World will be preening themselves that it has forced GoM to do so. In truth, there has been very little published about this case there. For example, in the UK there has been only two reports in local newspapers and one on a Scottish LGBT site. Yes, the US ambassador and diplomats from other countries have published some remarks on social media, but that is hardly going to grab the World’s attention.

    These arrests were completely bloody stupid and cannot be defended. Because of its position that there is a moratorium on arrests for consensual, same-sex acts, GoM should have acted promptly to censure the police and to have the charges dropped. Now, by its unjustified messing about it has given the appearance that it is giving in to First World activism.

    2…”Many Malawians this … many Malawians that … Many are outraged that Westerners are saying anything.”

    The truth is that MOST Malawians did not know of these arrests, and so have had nothing to say about it. You have been trawling the comments sections on our unregulated, on-line media from where thoroughly nasty comments are never deleted. One reason for this (I suspect) is that they are click bait and so increase advertising revenue . You have websites there in the First World, such as Stormfront, where hateful articles and comments are posted. Am I to deduce then that you all hate Jews and anyone who is not white?

    3…Myself, I want to see repealed those sections of the Penal Code which criminalise consensual, same-sex acts. However, it is offensive to see articles such as this from a foreigner who is targeting his fellow foreigners in order to whip up hatred against us, and wherein every scrap of dirt which he has managed to hoover off the internet is gleefully reproduced.

    In short, by all means report the stupid, unjustified arrests but the detail which you have gone into here just provokes those of us here who read it into losing sight of the issue of LGBT rights and reacting to unjustified, foreign meddling.

    • Dear Peter,
      You and I may not be too far apart on this issue. It seemed important for my readers (most of whom are in the West, plus 672 visits from Malawi so far this year) to know more about the response from Malawians to Western critiques of the country’s human rights policies.

      I didn’t cite any online comment sections, however. The quotes were all from Malawian publications’ articles.

      My sense is that many people lost sight of the issue of LGBT rights long before this article was published. In any case, I’ve only had 25 visits today from Malawi.

      — Colin Stewart, editor/publisher of this blog

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