Sowing poisonous seeds in Zambia

BY CHIVULI UKWIMI

 A week after the European Union called for proposals from organisations in Zambia working on human rights, including the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, the Minister of Home Affairs, Edgar Lungu, stated in an interview that the EU was promoting same-sex marriages in Zambia – sparking a storm of homophobic bigotry and hate-speech.

Pointing out that Zambia was a Christian nation and vices like homosexuality would not be tolerated, Lungu stressed that the government would be monitoring civil society leaders that responded to the EU’s call – and would not hesitate to arrest them.

And clearly the police were listening. Because just days later, the renowned human rights and HIV activist, Paul Kasonkomona, was arrested for affirming LGBTI rights on a TV talk show. Indeed, the police said that they were acting on ‘orders from above’ when they picked up Paul, who they then detained unlawfully for longer than the 48-hour limit despite his lawyers’ efforts to secure his release.

When questioned, the police indicated that their hands were tied (or perhaps handcuffed) because the case was political and they were waiting for orders from the powers-that-be, which at that point was Lungu, who was Acting President since President Sata was on an official trip to China.

However, the police were not simply silently following orders. They made totally unacceptable – and potentially extremely dangerous – calls in both the electronic and print media for the public to report anyone they suspected of being gay or lesbian, while emphasizing that homosexual acts were illegal – and would not be treated lightly – in Zambia.

And just in case anyone thinks Lungu was the only government mouthpiece spewing fear and loathing, the Minister of Youth, Sport and Child Development, Chishimba Kambwili, joined in by calling into a radio talk show on ‘homosexuality and religion’ and reiterating that his government would not tolerate any calls for LGBTI rights to be promoted or protected in Zambia. Indeed, he added that the government was working on stiffening the existing law to deter anyone from engaging in the ‘practice’.

Religious leaders call for zero tolerance to homosexuality

Needless to say, it was not only political leaders who jumped on the anti-gay bandwagon. Sadly, as always, religious leaders were close behind – intensifying their usual anti-gay rhetoric and demanding an audience with government. Lungu rapidly agreed and after the meeting both Church and State agreed to come out strongly against homosexuality. On a radio programme after Paul’s release, religious leaders from American-funded and supported radical evangelical churches and one Muslim Imam called for stiff action against homosexuals – even urging the public to take the law into their own hands should the government fail to respond to this vice adequately.

Just think about that for a second – religious leaders calling for mob justice, inciting people to violent criminal acts since that is what ‘take the law into their own hands’ typically means. And terrifyingly, the majority of other callers agreed with them – and called for the burning and killing of all homosexuals in the ‘Christian nation of Zambia’.

Free speech is important in a democracy but hate speech and incitement to murder are a threat – not only to the lives of marginalized minorities but also to the very fabric of an open, tolerant, democratic society. But spewing hatred doesn’t even get you warned by the police, while suggesting that two people of the same sex might love each another gets you arrested.

It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church and its highly influential council of bishops have been noticeably silent during this current debate. While they are unlikely to rally behind LGBTI rights, at least they have not joined in the scapegoating.

Why the sudden fuss?

There are various factors at play here. Firstly, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) government is slowly losing popularity and is now trying to play the anti-homosexual card – as Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime successfully did in neighbouring Malawi – to divert attention away from a host of problems and solidify support among the ‘Christian’ majority in Zambia. Homosexuality is an issue that seems to override other concerns and bridge political and economic divides in Zambia – and the PF government is taking full advantage.

But it is unlikely to end with gays and lesbians. As Malawians found out, once a government has enjoyed a boost by attacking a minority group – it will use the same tactics for others. Zambians will find – indeed some opposition politicians and civil society leaders are already finding – that after flogging the anti-gay issue as hard as possible, the authorities will start to target other groups. Gay bashing is – to use yet another cliché – the start of a slippery slope to bashing a host of other marginalized and socially excluded groups.

And secondly, there has been an increase in the number of visits to Zambia by notable American evangelical leaders calling upon Zambian leaders to reject ‘anti-biblical’ practices like homosexuality and abortion and uphold and retain the status of Zambia as a ‘Christian nation’. Of course, many of them have come with sizeable cheques to ‘support’ various churches and religious institutions. And opportunist religious leaders – like Bishop Edward Chomba, who was actually ex-communicated by the International Communion of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church in the US in 2007 – are happily jumping at the chance to make friends with their wealthy peers from across the sea by trying to out-do each other’s anti-gay rhetoric.

If you think you have heard this process before, it is because you have – in Uganda. And we know where that ended up – in legislation calling for the death penalty for homosexual acts, vile and vitriolic press ‘coverage’, and the murder of an LGBTI activist.

And the third reason for the flare up in bigotry is the ongoing National Constitutional Conference (NCC), which is tasked debating the final draft of a new constitution. It is quite clear that the anti-gay rights movement has closely studied the draft constitution and, just like us, found the ‘loopholes’ that may render the sodomy clause in the current penal code unconstitutional – and thereby lead to the decriminalisation of same sex sexual conduct in Zambia.

Of particular interest to the delegates at the NCC are Articles 9 and 27 of the Bill of Rights. Article 27 guarantees protection from discrimination based on sex, religion, race etc. and ‘on any other grounds’. Delegates have called for the deletion of this final clause claiming that it would afford protection to homosexuals. Article 9 calls for the protection of marginalised groups and minorities – another red flag to the anti-gay bulls.

Final thoughts 

The recent happenings in Zambia have left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. Zambia was well on the way to recognising minority rights but those opposed to gay rights did their homework and struck suddenly and ferociously – with the support of radical American evangelicals, who are sowing the same poisonous seeds that grew so well in Uganda in Zambia’s fertile soil.

And while those preaching hate, spoke out loudly – what I heard most clearly was the deafening silence of so many civil society organizations and human rights groups. Instead of standing up for the rights of their fellow Zambians – including the most basic right of all: the right to life – many human rights activists and defenders have sat down and watched silently from the sidelines. As many of their peers did in similar circumstances in Malawi.

I will eventually forget the latest drumbeat of anti-gay rhetoric in Zambia. But the silence of so many human rights groups will forever ring loudly in my mind – and the minds of all the Zambian LGBTI people who they have betrayed.

Courtesy of Osisa 

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