The colonial legacy of anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Africa

Monday, 13 November 2023 05:00 GMT

A person attends the Johannesburg Pride celebration which proceeded despite the reported threat of a terror attack in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa October 29, 2022. REUTERS/James Oatway

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Legacy of Africa's colonial past can be seen in anti-LGBTQ+ laws and discrimination in some nations but others embrace new rights
  • Many anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Africa have colonial origins
  • Britain's laws have had a lasting impact
  • Some countries repealing laws, others reinforcing them

By Andrew Mambondiyani

Nov 13 (Openly) - Namibia's High Court will rule next May in a case that could see the southern African country overturn a colonial-era ban on same-sex relations.

Friedel Dausab, who is gay, is challenging the compatibility of the common law offence of sodomy and related offences with his rights under the constitution. Sexual contact between men is a criminal offence in Namibia but the law is seldom enforced.

Like many anti-LGBTQ+ statutes across Africa, the Namibian law dates back to colonisation and was retained on the books after independence in 1990.

In October, Mauritius moved to decriminalise same-sex relations when the Supreme Court in the Indian Ocean island nation struck out a law dating back to British colonial rule in 1898, saying it was unconstitutional.

Globally, 65 jurisdictions still criminalise same-sex relations, according to rights group Human Dignity Trust (HDT), and 31 of these are in Africa.

Here's what you need to know about this colonial legacy in Africa.

Where is the colonial legacy still being felt most keenly?

Rights activists say abuses experienced by LGBTQ+ people today can often be traced back globally to a colonial legacy of discrimination, even though colonial powers like Britain, France and Portugal long ago decriminalised same-sex relations.

Given the size of its empire at the height of its power, British law still casts a long shadow in its former colonies.

According to HDT research, 13 former British colonies in Africa have laws that prohibit same-sex relations.

"The basis of many of the world's anti-LGBT criminal laws is British colonialism," said Téa Braun, chief executive of HDT.

This idea is also espoused by activists who challenge the notion -- often voiced by lawmakers pushing for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation -- that same-sex relations are un-African.

They point to historical examples of more fluid sexual behaviour across the continent.

"The British exported their legal systems ... imposing them on societies where often consensual same-sex activity did not carry the same social and religious taboos," said Braun.

By the time Britain legalised same-sex acts in 1967, many former colonies had gained independence and did not inherit the legal change, including Kenya and Uganda.

What about other colonies?

While Britain's colonial legacy weighs heavy on LGBTQ+ communities in some African countries, it is not the case in every former colony.

Portugal was one of the main colonial powers in Africa and today, all five of its former colonies have decriminalised gay sex.

Guinea-Bissau was the first to do so in 1993 -- becoming the first African country to legalise LGBTQ activity -- while Angola and Mozambique dropped the colonial-era "vices against nature" from their criminal codes in 2019 and 2015, respectively.

Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, a sociologist at the Federal University of Pernambuco-Brazil, said one possible reason Portuguese legislation did not have the lasting effect of British law was that it was only applied to colonies in 1954.

"We're talking about the very late phase of the Portuguese colonial reign in Africa," he said.

Former French colonies fell under the jurisdiction of the French Penal Code of 1791, which was centuries ahead of other European laws in decriminalising consensual same-sex activity.

But several former French colonies passed anti-homosexuality laws after gaining independence, including Algeria, Cameroon, Mauritania and Chad.

Away from colonial influences, some rights activists say foreign anti-LGBTQ+ religious groups drive the agenda in some countries while sharia is also used -- for example in Somalia and some Nigerian states -- to outlaw LGBTQ activity.

What is behind the current pushback on LGBTQ+ rights?

A recent wave of conservatism has swept across Africa with activists decrying an assault on LGBTQ+ rights, notably in east Africa.

In May, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signed one of the world's harshest anti-LGBTQ laws, including the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality", in defiance of Western condemnations and potential sanctions from aid donors.

Next-door, Kenyan authorities are considering similar measures to further penalise gay sex, as are lawmakers in Tanzania and South Sudan.

Some regional lawmakers frame the issue as an existential battle to defend what they see as African values, which they say have been battered by Western pressure to support gay rights.

"In the case of Uganda or Nigeria and other cases, the current political elites are now (casting) homosexuality as something 'un-African' to enforce their power," said Gomes da Costa Santos.

This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS's Free To Be Me programme

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Ruling by Kenya's Supreme Court buoys LGBTQ+ community

Same-sex marriage: LGBTQ+ Indians vow to fight on after setback

World Bank halts new lending to Uganda over anti-LGBTQ law

(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; Editing by Sadiya Ansari, Hugo Greenhalgh and Clar Ni Chonghaile. Please credit Openly, the LGBTQ+ news website from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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