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President Nujoma's homophobic outburst is just the latest in a chilling campaign to demonize Namibian queers. Related Gully Coverage

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Nujoma

President Sam Nujoma of Namibia

Namibia

The Bermuda Triangle of African Homophobia

by Ana Simo

MARCH 28, 2001. On Monday, March 19, two days before his nation celebrated the 11th anniversary of its independence, President Sam Nujoma of Namibia used the occasion of a major speech at the University of Namibia to attack lesbians and gay men.

"The Republic of Namibia does not allow homosexuality, lesbianism here. Police are ordered to arrest you, and deport you, and imprison you, too," he told a hushed audience. He then once again blamed "foreign influences" for homosexuality in Namibia, which he said threatened to destroy the nation.

Demonizing Queers
President Nujoma's homophobic outburst is just the latest in a chilling campaign to demonize Namibian queers as a national threat.

It started in 1995, when Nujoma's then Finance Minister Helmut Angula, Minister Nahas Angula, and Deputy Minister Hadino Hishongwa, first denounced homosexuality as "an un-African social evil." Helmut Angula also called it a "mental disorder" which "can be cured." The two Angulas are big shots in Nujoma's ruling SWAPO Party: they are members of its Political Bureau, the top decision-making body.

Hishongwa, who was Deputy Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Minister, said, "Homosexuality is like cancer or AIDS and everything should be done to stop its spread in Namibia." Gay men and lesbians, he declared, "should be operated on to remove unnatural hormones in them."

In December 1996, President Nujoma himself told the national conference of the SWAPO Women's Council that gay men and lesbians were "un-African and unnatural." He added, "Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society."

"Extinction of the Nation"
A year later, in 1997, Nujoma heightened the rhetoric when he accused gay men and lesbians of being "European" and destroying Namibian culture by imposing "gayism," and he vowed to "uproot" homosexuality. "It [homosexuality] is a foreign and corrupt ideology and such elements are exploiting our democracy," he said.

At the National Assembly, in 1998, Nujoma's Home Affairs Minister, top cop, and new anti-gay point man, Jerry Ekandjo, threatened to increase penalties for "lesbianism and homosexual acts," telling the Assembly that "the so-called gay rights can never qualify as human rights" and "if not guarded against, will lead to the extinction of the nation."

Ekandjo sparked violence in 1999 when he asserted that the police had been ordered "to eliminate all gays and lesbians" in Namibia. Although the police itself took no such action, several people were attacked, according to Phil na Yangoloh, the Executive Director of the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia (NSHR).

Last year, Ekandjo urged newly graduated police officers to "eliminate [gays and lesbians] from the face of Namibia" and compared being gay to "other unnatural acts, including murder." Like Nujoma, his Home Affairs Minister blames his country's rising HIV-infection rate on gay people.

Shockwaves of Fear
President Nujoma's latest threats sent shockwaves of fear through Namibia's lesbian and gay community. The morning following his speech, the Rainbow Project, the country's only lesbian and gay rights organization, was besieged with phone calls, many by frightened queers who wanted help leaving the country. Founded in 1989, The Rainbow Project has about 1,000 members, according to its coordinator, Ian Swartz, who told BBC News Online that there are "many more Namibians who are afraid to reveal their sexual orientation."

Both The Rainbow Project and NSHR, the country's preeminent human rights group, publicly slammed Nujoma for his attack on queers. The Rainbow Project called it "shocking" and "malicious and hateful" and questioned which laws he would use to carry out his threat to arrest, imprison, and deport gay men and lesbians. While sodomy is a crime in Namibia, being lesbian or gay is not. And in spite of the authoritarian Nujoma, the country still has a democratic framework, however hobbled, which includes a constitution with an equal protection clause.

Homophobia, Racism: Same Cancer
NSHR called Nujoma's "orders" to the police "not only unconstitutional, but devoid of mature logic." The President's "latest homophobic attack [is] dangerous, as violent words from a popular leader may lead to violence against innocent citizens," the human rights group added.

"Targeting people because of their sexual orientation is extremely similar to discriminating against people because of the color of their skin. In a country that has emerged from the horrors of apartheid, it should not be such a leap in logic to recognize that homophobia is a form of the same cancer that is racism," the group said, asking Nujoma "to publicly retract these recent remarks and desist from attacking this minority group."

NSHR's Phil ya Nangoloh told the Nairobi-based IRIN news agency on March 21 that "We cannot pretend that gays or lesbianism were imported by Europeans. It is African. I know that in my own language (Ovambo) there is a word, 'Eshinge,' for a gay person. We would not have a word for it if it was imported."

The only logical explanation for Nujoma's comments, according to Phil ya Nangoloth, "is that it is a diversionary tactic aimed at taking public attention away from burning issues like unemployment and other social ills in this country—things like Namibia's involvement in foreign wars (in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Angola.)"

The African Bermuda Triangle of Homophobia
The diversionary use of lesbian and gay people as national scapegoats has turned parts of the region into a kind of dangerous Bermuda Triangle of homophobia. It was neighboring Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe who was the first in the area to identify gay people as a useful national enemy, ripe for consolidating dictatorial powers. And since the beginning of Namibia's anti-gay campaign, the homo-rants by Nujoma and other SWAPO hierarchs have sounded eerily like Mugabe's.

Jerry Ekandjo was badly paraphrasing Mugabe's snappier "If cats and dogs know their mates, why not you?" when he told the Namibian legislators in 1998, "Gay and lesbian rights can never qualify as fundamental rights because, if a male dog know its right partner is a female dog, how can a human being fail to notice the difference?" Not coincidentally, Mugabe's deliriously logical conclusion had been the terse, "Gays and lesbians are sick-minded people who should not be given rights."

Ironically, both Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Namibia's Sam Nujoma had begun as respected liberation movement leaders and first presidents of their newly independent nations. Both had enjoyed international adulation and funding, and little close scrutiny, partly because their enemies were so awful (racist Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa). Both now feel irresistible autocratic urgings—Mugabe, so far, acting out on them with more alacrity than his neighbor.

Like other autocrats everywhere, both now use the vague national threat of the homosexual menace to undercut democratic political competition, and the efforts of civil rights workers, including feminists. Nujoma's 1996 attacks on lesbians at the SWAPO Women's Council conference were seen as a swipe at Sister Namibia, an independent feminist group that supported human and civil rights for lesbians and gay men, and was perceived as a potential threat to the governmental SWAPO female group's lock on "women's issues." (Both the official women's group and the Namibian Minister for Women's Affairs are bitterly opposed to lesbian and gay rights.)

The escalating war of words by Mugabe homophobic-copycats like the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, and Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba, besides Namibia's Nujoma, may well translate into a disaster—a flood of tortured, dead, imprisoned, deported queers, instead of the current, nearly invisible trickle.

No Democracy Without Queers
Over the years, government attacks against queers in Namibia have only elicited faint peeps from human rights groups abroad, for whom gay rights continue to be a poor relation. Locally, however, the government has been criticized harshly, and often, but only by the few groups that dare confront SWAPO's virtual one-party state dominance, notably NSHR, The Rainbow Project, the Legal Assistance Center, and Sister Namibia, whose office was gutted by fire in a suspected anti-gay attack last July. Some of the local independent media has also covered the issue impartially, in particular the daily newspaper The Namibian.

The newspaper risks becoming the first casualty of President Nujoma's latest hate speech. On the same day The Namibian covered critical reactions to the speech, the government announced that it was cutting off all its advertising in the newspaper because it was "too critical of its policies."

The measure apparently had been taken in December, but not enforced until now. Another independent newspaper, the Windhoek Advertiser, folded a few years ago when it also lost crucial government advertising. The Namibian government is the country's biggest advertiser.

The advertising ban on The Namibian was announced on March 22, a day after Namibia's independence celebration.

Contact Jerry Ekandjo, Home Affairs Minister

Related links:

For a quick overview of Namibia, from the estimable CIA World Factbook.

For the scathing Namibia Human Rights Report, 2000, by the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia.

For the U.S. State Department's far more charitable report on human rights in Namibia, 2000. Compare it to the NSHR's sharper assessment.

For The Namibian, the independent daily newspaper. Website is hard to access, but worthwhile. Great cartoons.

For the article Sister Namibia's office gutted in suspected anti-gay attack.

For Complete Coverage Africa

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

Namibia facts

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