Ethiopia is on its way to being the next African state to pass an anti-gay bill. Lawmakers are set to pass legislation that would put homosexuality, which is already illegal in the country, on a list of criminal offenses deemed ‘unpardonable’ under Ethiopia’s amnesty law. The move, which would put same-sex acts on the level of such crimes as rape, terrorism, and human trafficking, follows the enactment of similarly harsh anti-gay legislative measures in Uganda and Nigeria in a worrying trend of targeting gays for political point-scoring.
Indeed, supporters of these measures in Ethiopia are apparently taking a page out of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s playbook. Addis Ababa Youth Forum, a prominent youth group affiliated with the ruling EPRDF party has been echoing much of the same anti-gay rhetoric that has become so pronounced in Uganda, including characterizing homosexuality as a western import and linking it to pedophilia and other social ills. The successes of this demonization campaign — especially in boosting popular support for its political proponents — should explain why it’s gaining favor across Africa, including in states that already have homosexuality bans on the books.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Gay rights in Africa
Along with Weyneye Abune Teklehaimanot, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church association which also boasts ties to the government, Addis Ababa Youth Forum is planning a mass anti-gay demonstration in Ethiopia’s capital. While the rally is reportedly backed by a number of government institutions, it has yet to receive official approval, perhaps reflecting some of the same qualms that made Museveni pause for so long before signing his country’s own anti-gay bill. However, these qualms (mainly fears of international censure) are increasingly outweighed by the clear advantages of leveraging widespread homophobia for domestic political gain.
And with elections coming up next year, there should be little doubt that politicians in Ethiopia will continue to draw on such tried and true targets to boost their own standing. Meanwhile, this tactic of fanning the flames of homophobia also serves as a convenient means of justifying the country’s already robust suppression of foreign NGOs promoting human rights — something the government may also have an interest in tamping down on ahead of elections. Anti-advocacy laws, which ban NGOs receiving funding from abroad from participating in human rights work, have been successfully marketed in Ethiopia by drawing on fears of ‘homosexual recruitment’— a pervasive theme for anti-gay campaigns across the continent.
All this while the threat from a real foreign import continues to grow — a recently released report by Human Rights Watch accuses Ethiopia’s government of using software from Chinese and European firms to conduct mass surveillance of Ethiopians as a means of silencing dissent. Should Ethiopia pass this latest anti-gay measure, the expected round of condemnation from European governments should be undermined somewhat by their complicity in enabling the broader climate of repression that makes these anti-gay measures possible. But that is precisely the utility of these deliberately provocative measures; they are convenient, symbolically-powerful targets — for both their supporters and opponents.