Amber Murrey

Published in Pambazuka News 651 : SPECIAL ISSUE : Thomas Sankara and inventing Africa’s future : 26 years later 2013-10-25

The political ideology of Thomas Sankara, including warmth and compassion towards other humans, dignity for peasants, self-sufficiency for all Burkinabes, women’s emancipation and a politics of anti-imperialism, along with his thoughtful considerations of Burkinabe traditions and histories, assert pan-African alternatives to the discourse and practices of homophobia.

Cameroonian gay rights activist Eric Ohena Lembembe wrote in his last blog post: ‘Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.’ This July, his body was found in his home, covered with iron burns, his hands and feet broken.

In his recent Africa tour, US President Barack Obama focused on gay rights across the continent and the political backlash against his call for gay rights was fervent. Gambian President Yahyah Jammeh responded with threats against ‘satanic homosexuals’ while Senegalese president Macky Sall’s rebuttal of Obama’s arguments was based on the US’s poor human rights record and continued use of capital punishment. He could have likewise cited the anti-gay hate crimes, including murder, that occur in the US every year – with 30 fatally violent crimes in 2011 alone.

Although I appreciate President Sall’s political wit and demands for political sovereignty, the death of Ugandan gay activist David Kato and Cameroon’s Eric Lembembe, the exposure of the role played by US evangelical Christian groups in cultivating homophobia across the world and in Africa in particular, and Uganda’s so-called ‘kill the gays’ movement illustrate that this conversation is beyond moral or ethical considerations of marriage, adoption or civil union. The conversation on homophobia in Africa must continue to confront the cultivation of a dangerous hatred that manifests into harassment, torture, imprisonment, violent sexual abuse and murder that must be stopped.

A few months ago, again just as President Obama was touring South Africa, I entered into a heated debate with a Nigerian man living in the US about the issue of gay rights in Africa (certainly not the first of such debates). He premised his arguments on the assertion that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ and does not exist in the non-human, animal world. He continued, asserting that homosexuality was imported from the West during colonization and as a weapon to control African governments since. The ties between sexuality and power in African politics resound, alternating between claims that politicians sexually devour women or undergo homosexual rites of passage to achieve political statue. This reaches the highest echelons including, for example, the rumour that Cameroonian President Paul Biya subsumed the office only after being ritually sodomozed by the former President Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Through reading the African sexual histories written by Ife Amadiume, Will Roscoe, Sylvia Tamale and Marc Epprecht we know that the so-called ‘intervention des pédés blancs’ (the discourse that homosexuality was imported in Africa by the West) is a myth, albeit a powerful one. Of course the debate on homosexuality is tightly linked with religious beliefs, in Africa as elsewhere. However in Cameroon and across Sub-Saharan Africa research on the upsurge of homophobia in the 1980s illustrates the economic and political motivators that incite politicians and religious leaders to cultivate hate for LGBTQ people; a hate that can displace the anger that people feel in a context of unemployment and non-employment and increasing rates of poverty and inequality under structural adjustment; not to mention the failed promise of democratic change in countries like Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Congo, Chad and Senegal (not an exhaustive list, certainly) – all of which witnessed the reign of dictatorial leaders through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

The key ideas of the political ideology of Thomas Sankara – including warmth and compassion towards other humans, dignity for peasants, self-sufficiency for all Burkinabes, women’s emancipation (“l’emancipation de la femme burkinabé”), and a politics of anti-imperialism – along with his thoughtful considerations of Burkinabe traditions and histories assert Pan-African alternatives to the discourse and practices of homophobia that are based on supposedly anti-imperialist ideologies. The great irony is, of course, the importation of homophobic discourse and law to Africa from the West, namely US evangelical groups.

I reread Sankara’s calls to a unified, dignified people in the context of the current persecution of homosexuals in Africa (again, not a singularly African experience as homophobia is a global phenomenon). A Sankarist approach to the artificial confrontation between LGBTQ rights and anti-imperialist discourse appears as no more than a shadow puppet (or masquerade) devised to distract and divide mostly impoverished Africans from politico-economic debates that could foster empowerment.

Sankara, in his 3 January 1986 speech entitled, Ne pas se laisser entraîner dans les combats inutiles, said, ‘Nous savons, nous, révolutionnaires, que chaque jour qui passe est un jour d’affrontement. Nous savons que depuis le jour où c’était le 26 mars 1983 à cette même place, nous avons proclamé que “lorsque le peuple se met debout, l’impérialisme tremble,’ depuis ce jour, nous sommes face à face avec l’impérialisme et ses valets” (We know, we the revolutionaries, that each day that passes is a day of confrontation. We know that since March 26th, 1983 in this exact place, we proclaimed, “When the people take a stand, imperialism trembles,” [and] since that day, we are face to face with imperialism and its servants). By means of Sankara’s political philosophy clearly LGBTQ rights are fundamental to human emancipation, liberty and empowerment. Debunking the myth that homosexuality is linked to imperialism is fundamental in this collective task.

Amber Murrey *

* Amber Murrey is a PhD candidate at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation research looks at the parallels between structural violence and witchcraft epistemologies in two communities along the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline.

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  1. A Sankarist Response to Homophobia
    What was Sankara’s take on homosexuality to my knowledge he has said nothing about it. I highly doubt he was in favour of homosexuality

  2. A Sankarist Response to Homophobia
    This one puzzled me too. Sankara himself said nothing about homosexuality, and I have always been curious as to what his policy would be.

    I e-mailed M. Jaffré on the matter, and he informed me that at the time, homosexuality was considered to be a purely Western phenomenon; as a result it was never really discussed.

    I suppose there is reason to believe that Sankara would have been opposed to homophobia. While proudly African, he wasn’t afraid to criticise African traditions he deemed irrational, and he certainly has a record of attempting of defending the rights of disenfranchised groups.

    He could have seen homosexuality from a number of perspectives:

    As a revolutionary, he may well have been supportive of it.

    As a Marxist, it’s impossible to say. Theoretically his commitment to egalitarianism and social justice would have led him to defend homosexuals, on the other hand Marx himself never discusses it, and regimes inspired by Marxist belief also have a history of homophobia.

    As a Catholic, he may well have been opposed to it. On the other hand, he wasn’t particularly close to the Church, and with the inquisitive mind he undoubtedly had, who’s to say he wouldn’t have picked apart Paul’s words?

    Sankara’s complete silence on the issue puts us in a impossible situation; all we can really do is speculate. Sankara generally had his own unique take on more or less every issue, I imagine his take on homosexuality would have been exactly the same.


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