Coverage of what’s happening to LGBTQ people in Tanzania, a nation of 57 million people on the Eastern coast of Africa, has left much of queer media in a panic. Stories of gay people outed and arrested — and of many more in hiding from a government that wants them hunted and jailed — have made headlines over the last week. Like many, I can’t help but think we’ve seen and heard all this before, with one question on the forefront of my mind: Will Tanzania be the new Chechnya?
The international community’s response (to what is still happening to LGBT people inside the Russian republic, it should be said) was hardly swift or forceful enough. Despite the efforts of gay media and international advocacy organizations to enlighten the world to the atrocities taking place in Chechnya — where gays and trans people have been systematically rounded up, humiliated publicly, tortured, sexually violated and, in some cases, murdered — it took months for much of mainstream media to ring the alarm, and powerful political action taken against Chechnya and its benefactor, Russia, has been lacking.
In April of this year — one year since President Ramzan Kadyrov’s assault on LGBTQ people began within Chechnya’s borders — the Russia LGBT Network, a local organization that as of last spring had helped more than 100 queer people escape Chechnya (an initiative with which Hornet has assisted), confirmed with us that Chechnya’s purge had neither stopped nor let up.
“We continue to receive information that people are still kidnapped, detained and tortured. We still receive requests for help and evacuating people from the region,” said the organization spokesperson, forced to speak with us under anonymity.
As late as May, the Trump administration was denying visas to gay Chechens attempting to escape, despite other nations, like Belgium, offering humanitarian visas. Just days ago, however, the United States joined 15 other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to trigger an investigation into human rights abuses in the republic. A fact-finding mission will take place, after which a report will be drafted, discussed by the Permanent Council and then released to the public.
“Russia has failed to provide a substantive response to repeated expressions of international concern and calls for accountability,” says U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino.
But now, roughly a year and a half since the atrocities against the Chechen LGBTQ population began, is it possible that we have another international crisis of a similar magnitude brewing in Africa?
Here’s what’s happening in Tanzania
Hornet first reported on Oct. 30 that Paul Makonda, governor of Dar es Salaam — a region that is the economic center of Tanzania and houses the former capital and most populous city (of the same name) of the country — launched a crackdown on the region’s LGBT population the day before. He said he had given the police a week to round up all homosexuals, encouraged the citizenry to report any known gay people to authorities and said his forces would be sifting through social media to uncover any others.
Anyone caught, Makonda threatened, would serve 30-year prison terms — a punishment that doesn’t even fly in the face of Tanzanian law, where the maximum sentence for sex between two men is life behind bars. The country is one of many where homophobic laws instituted by British colonials are still on the books.
“I have information about the presence of many homosexuals in our province,” Makonda, a Christian extremist, told Tanzanian reporters. “If you know of a homosexual, you must report them to a police officer. No one can escape. … My team will have them all by next Monday.”
Predicting how more progressive regions and nations would respond to his proposed purge, Makonda reportedly said, “I prefer to anger those countries than to anger God.” He also claimed he had already received thousands of calls that named approximately 100 queer people under his jurisdiction.
The aftermath of Tanzania’s LGBT crackdown
In the week since news of Makonda’s LGBT crackdown has been reported on, the European Union has recalled its Tanzania ambassador, citing the nation’s “deterioration of the human rights and rule of law situation.” A statement issued today has said the EU will be conducting a broad review of its dealings with Tanzania.
Today also saw the U.S. State Department issue a security alert to any U.S. citizens looking to travel to Tanzania or who live abroad in the nation. The warning encourages Americans to remove any images on their social media accounts that “may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity.” The security alert also states that while Tanzania officials are obligated to alert the U.S. embassy when American citizens are arrested, this isn’t always done, so any American detained or arrested in Tanzania should ask authorities if the consulate has been notified.
Furthermore, human rights groups and LGBTQ organizations have publicly denounced what’s happening in Tanzania. From a statement last Friday by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet: “This could turn into a witch-hunt and could be interpreted as a license to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination against those perceived to be LGBT.”
“The idea of this task force must be immediately abandoned as it only serves to incite hatred among members of the public,” says Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
The national government of Tanzania has, to the surprise of few, attempted to distance itself from Makonda’s LGBT crackdown. President John Magufuli insists the crackdown is “not official policy” and that his national government will “continue to respect all international human rights conventions which it subscribes to.” What Magufuli did not do was assure the nation’s LGBTQ citizens of their safety, or even publicly challenge Makonda’s crackdown. And it’s been pointed out that Makonda was appointed by Magufuli and is a close ally of the president.
Indeed, Magufuli has praised Makonda and has made a point of directing other regional governors to emulate Makonda before this LGBT crackdown began.
While Magufuli’s reaction to what is transpiring in Tanzania fails to meet even a bare minimum of decency for his LGBTQ citizenry, and while we’re hardly likely to see proactive support of the country’s queer community emerge from his administration, the mere acknowledgment by Magufuli of the purge in Dar es Salaam is more than we saw from Russia at the start of the Chechen purge — or even now, for that matter.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov continues to utilize agents to obstruct investigation into his crackdown on LGBTQ people, and as recently as this August he has threatened to ban rights activists. Meanwhile Russian authorities have long refused a legitimate, transparent investigation into what’s happening in Chechnya. Russia does little more than shrug off valid reports of atrocities against queer people as insubstantial.
Vital to the prevention of a ‘Chechnya level’ situation in Tanzania is the international community keeping a close eye on Makonda and Magufuli, and responding swiftly and powerfully in defense of the country’s LGBTQ community — more swiftly and more powerfully than the response Chechnya received.
Tanzania’s LGBT population retreated into secrecy years ago, but things are now even worse
The most recent actions of Western governments, international coalitions and human rights advocacy groups haven’t stopped queer people in Tanzania from retreating into hiding. In fact, many queer people have lived in secrecy since President Magufuli’s election back in 2015.
It was just last year that Magufuli famously said everyone should condemn homosexuality, “even cows.” His government has expelled non-citizens for reportedly advocating for gay rights. In March 2017 his government closed drop-in HIV centers because it was argued they encouraged homosexuality. His health minister even banned the sale of lube within Tanzania, insisting it encourages gay men to have sex.
Things are decidedly worse for Tanzania’s LGBTQ population given the recent announcement of Makonda’s crackdown. An activist living in Dar es Salaam tells The Guardian, “They are raiding houses. It is a horrible thing. It is just going to get worse. So many people are leaving the city, running away. They are targeting the activists, saying we are promoting homosexuality. We have to hide.” Another activist told the paper that it’s “open season on gay people” because lists of names of gay people are being published on social media.
James Wandera Ouma — a local activist and founder of LGBT Voice Tanzania, which seeks to assist local LGBTQ people and has staff attorneys to help those who are arrested — tells Vox that many have gone into hiding in the last week, while others have relocated. But Ouma has told CNN, “I have closed my office today and we will not be operating for a while.”