On Monday, Liberian newspaper New Dawn ran a front-page story that should have been noticed especially in America. While the main characters were questionable Liberian politicians, the backdrop was nothing less than an American cultural war being fought on African soil. The issue? Homosexuality. The weapons? Money, lots of it. By SIMON ALLISON.
Let’s start with the story itself. It’s a typically sordid tale. A lawmaker whispered into someone’s ear at the New Dawn that Alex Tyler, incumbent speaker of parliament who was running for the position again, had received $1-million from a mysterious campaign donor. The idea was to give each member of the new legislature a cut, a simple bribe to guarantee his election. And, as editor Othello Garblah told iMaverick in a phone interview, Liberian politicians are notoriously “gullible” when it comes to financial inducements. Following the speaker’s successful re-election, a further $2-million would be made available to help the speaker push through a law that was dear to the mysterious donor’s heart. Garblah thinks he knows the identity of this mysterious donor, but has not been able to confirm it.
What he could say was what the money was intended for a controversial new law known as the “Gay Rights Bill”, which would protect the rights of homosexuals in Liberia. And he thinks the money is coming from America.
The speaker, who denies New Dawn’s claims, duly retained his position, with or without the alleged financial inducements. Now he’ll be scrutinised closely to see what he does with the Gay Rights Bill and how hard he pushes it. Chances are he’ll need all that extra money to guarantee its passing, because gay rights in Liberia – as in many African countries – remain deeply unpopular.
It would hardly be a surprise if it was confirmed that an American group was funding Liberian politicians, for in the last decade, Africa has become a key battleground in the American fight for and against gay rights. It started when gay rights became more acceptable in American politics. This was before the conservatism of the Tea Party was a major force, and forced some of the more extreme anti-gay crusaders to find sympathetic audiences elsewhere. Africa provided those audiences, as illustrated by this report in The New York Times about a conference held in Uganda in 2009: “For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ‘the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity’.”
This message, and others like it, resonated with many people in African countries where homosexuality is often considered “taboo”. It’s popularity was boosted by the growing influence of American evangelicalism in Africa. In fact, the two often went hand in hand, even helping to create anti-gay legislation, such as the infamous Ugandan bill which would have imposed the death penalty for homosexuality if passed, and the recent Nigerian law that criminalised same-sex marriages and made it a crime carrying a hefty sentence to assist same-sex couples wanting to get married.
But gay rights groups didn’t take long to notice what was going on and begin their fightback. Not known as a quiet bunch, they weren’t afraid to make some noise. Uganda’s bill was eventually shelved thanks to intense international pressure. In the meantime, Africa has developed an international reputation as being a particularly anti-gay continent, a reputation that’s often exaggerated though not undeserved.
But, important as the issue of homosexuality is here, what’s happening in Africa isn’t really about Africa at all. As the Times of London described it: “Some argue that the African rows over homosexuality are really a proxy skirmish in an American cultural dispute, with both evangelicals and gay rights groups in the US pouring in money and support.” The current Liberian example is the latest salvo in this battle, which might make pro-gay groups in America feel good, but does little or nothing for Liberia itself. Liberia, like the rest of Africa, has to figure out this issue for itself. American money that distorts the political system and entrenches corruption isn’t the best way to help do this, no matter how strongly either side in this proxy war believes in its cause. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall